With the Oscar-nominated La La Land wowing audiences, we take a look back at the great Hollywood musicals that inspired it. Are you dancin’? ‘Cause James Oliver is askin’...

It's hard to come up with reasons for forsaking the warmth of home during the gloom of January but the new film La La Land is a good one.

That’s the movie with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as the young dreamers whooping it up in Los Angeles, one that’s been met with much love from critics and audiences alike as the perfect pick-me-up in these grim days.


Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

It is, at least in part, a tribute to an earlier generation of Hollywood films; more specifically, the musicals. Because while all-singing, all-dancing movies are something of a novelty these days, they were once upon a time a cinematic staple—as popular back in the day as sci-fi blockbusters are now—and the best of them are up there with the very finest things ever to emerge from Tinsel Town. If you adored La La Land, you could only do yourself good by exploring its influences.

We can date the start of Hollywood musicals exactly to 1927: that was when Al Jolson opened his mouth and signalled the end of silent pictures.

Keen to lure the punters to check out their new technology, movie bosses ensured the film was stacked with what were, by 1927 standards, banging tunes—after all, if you call a movie The Jazz Singer, you could hardly skimp on music. Their ploy worked: The Jazz Singer was a huge hit.

This being Hollywood, other producers were keen to get in on the act. But these very early musicals are undistinguished affairs, very theatrical in their staging. Moreover, there’s very little in the way of dancing—and every fan of musicals knows how important twirls, leaps and pirouettes are to these films.


Busby Berkeley. Image via classicmoviefavorites

That would change largely due to the efforts of two men. The first was a chap who was christened Berkeley William Enos but was signed himself onscreen as Busby Berkeley. Berkeley was one of the great visionaries of cinema and, arguably, one of the great abstract artists of the 20th century (certainly the most widely seen).

A (self-taught) choreographer, he was responsible for the dancing sequences for the musicals made at Warner Brothers.

He staged them with incomparable razzle dazzle, using the camera to create spectacles that not even the most lavish theatrical extravaganza could hope to match: his signature move was to bunch dancers together, then film them from above to turn them into geometric shapes – a uniquely cinematic way of capturing movement.

The other great innovator wasn’t quite as radical; unlike Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire preferred more restrained camera work—he insisted on being filmed full-body so his fans could see it was him doing the steps. After all, he’d been dancing since he was little—his partnership with his sister Adele had made him one of the top variety stars in the world.

That partnership had dissolved when she got married and he was signed by RKO on the strength of his fancy footwork. Luckily for them, he had a decent singing voice and likeable on-screen personality too—one brought out especially well in his pairings with the divine Ginger Rogers.


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 

And boy, could he move. Embracing the possibility of movie-making, Astaire created routines that would be impossible on the stage. He could turn his hand (or should that be feet...?) to pretty much every form of dancing, from poppin’ fresh jazz rhythms to sedate ballroom glides, all underpinned by a natural grace—something he was still exhibiting at 71...

No studio is more synonymous with musicals than MGM, who produced the biggest and many of the best. And in their prime, they had no greater star than Judy Garland.

It’s easy to see why: she is a radiant presence, one of the truly great performers. Whatever the troubles of her private life—and they have been documented extensively—she always gave her all to her audiences: from the doe-eyed Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to the more worldly singer of A Star Is Born, she shines in every frame, enough to make you believe that she was happy for a time, if only while the camera turned.


Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, 1954. Image via moviemaniamadness

Also at MGM was Gene Kelly. While Fred Astaire was content to perform and maybe contribute to the choreography, Kelly stuck his fingers into every pie—working closely with directors (and sometimes sitting in the director’s chair himself) to bring new ideas to the screen.

Working with director Vincente Minnelli, Kelly made An American in Paris, which is the most spectacular of MGM’s musicals, then followed it with Singing in the Rain (which is the most purely entertaining).

He was some kind of man, Gene Kelly. So let us agree not to mention that his final film was the Olivia Newton-John roller-skating farrago Xanadu.

Here is Gene Kelly in The Pirate dancing with the amazing Nicholas Brothers:

And if you’ve never heard of the Nicholas Brothers.... Oh, man! This is from Stormy Weather: Fred Astaire called it the greatest dance routine he’d ever seen.

Gene Kelly hung up his dancing shoes in 1966 (excepting a one-off return for the Olivia Newton-John starring roller-skating farrago Xanadu, but we agreed not to mention that). You could make a shot that marked the beginning of the end of the Hollywood musical.

Sure, they were still being made in the 1960s—The Sound of Music, Hello Dolly—but they were losing their appeal: kids in the 1960s wanted rock ‘n’ roll, not show tunes. And by the end of the 1960s, the studios decided to concentrate on other things.


Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Image via sound-of-music

Not that the movie musical has ever died out. But those musicals that did make it into cinemas have—with only a very few exceptions—been adaptations of stage hits: Godspell, Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, Chicago, Dream Girls had all proved their worth in theatres long before they were filmed.


John Travolta in Grease 

That’s one of the reasons that there is such excitement about La La Land. Its more excitable fans are even wondering if this—finally!—is the film to restore the original movie musical back to its rightful place. It probably won’t: like the Western, times have probably changed too much for a full-scale restoration.

But that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying La La Land on its own merits and, especially, remembering just how good those classic movies really were and imagining how much better the world would be if people spontaneously burst into song...

 

Wondering what to watch next? Here are five of the best:

 

1. 42nd Street

The archetypal putting-on-a-show movie, 42nd Street is a behind-the-scenes look at a company preparing for a Broadway show, with all the drama and the ego that goes with it.

However, although it is certainly set in a theatre, Busby Berkeley decided to ignore that and stage dance routines that couldn’t possibly fit under a proscenium arch, with the camera flying this way and that. It remains one of his finest moments.

 

2. Meet Me in St Louis

Light on dancing it may be, but Meet Me in St Louis features some of the very best songs in any musical—Under the Bamboo Tree, The Trolley Song, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Oh, and the title number, of course. It also features Judy Garland at her very best, aided and abetted by her future husband Vincente Minnelli on peak form too.

 

3. The Band Wagon

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had parted ways over ten years before, and without her, truth be told, he wasn’t the draw he had been. But when MGM teamed him up with Vincente Minnelli (yes, him again), and gave them a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (they wrote Singing in the Rain too), Fred proved he’d still got it—and that audiences still loved him.

 

4. Singing in the Rain

De-de-de-de

De-de-de-de-de-de....

What else is there to say? As good an argument for Hollywood—hell, for movies themselves—as has ever been made, this is the purest pleasure. A film that will make even the most sedentary viewer get up and cut a rug, or at least wriggle vigorously in their seat.

 

5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Not a Hollywood musical but rather a French tribute of sorts made by Jacques Demy (and a huge influence on La La Land). Demy took the basics of the musical—the bright primary colours and, of course, the tunes (composed here by Michel Legrand) and used them to tell a story a little sadder and more honest than Hollywood could ever allow, a romance that doesn’t quite work out as we’d like it to.

 

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Feature image via Lionsgate

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