La La Land, Singin' in the Rain, and the Stylish Musical

Singin' in the Rain is my favorite movie. I mean, as much as there can be a permanent answer to that question. I've loved it since I was very young and think it holds up independent of the nostalgia factor; it formed some of my other loves (favorite aesthetics, genres, tropes); its look, storyline are evergreen in a way that keeps it from feeling as dated as many films of the era (though I love plenty of those too). The songs are solid, the jokes are funny (Donanld O’Connor’s comic sidekick is a proto-crush for many a young nerd), and the performances are virtuosic—Gene Kelly may not be equally threatening on all three showbiz vertices, but he can carry a tune.

It’s a great movie, well remembered for a reason, but I always think of it first for being stylish. The colors, the costumes, the sets. It helps that it’s about show business, so the glitz on everything can be turned up to eleven. (I almost always love movies about making movies, I guess because I know nothing about that world—it rivals my general annoyance with novels about novelists.) Singin’ in the Rain is a beautiful movie, and though I love it for its craftsmanship, it’s the style of the film that won me over and, I’d argue, the style that keeps it a tier above the other excellent movies many of the same people were making at more or less the same time.

A formative aesthetic of my childhood

A formative aesthetic of my childhood

I bring this up because a few weeks ago I saw La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s homage to—and/or reboot of—an entire genre, the golden-age film musical. It’s a very charming movie, thrilling to see made today—the paradoxical mix of nostalgia and surprise to be watching a film of this genre and technical form set in today’s world is intoxicating. If you, like me, were a kid who always fast-forwarded through the dream ballets (yelling “ugh, the boring part”), then you, like me, are going to end up crying a little in the theater at La La Land. It will be a darling of awards season this year, and I see why.

But it also has me wondering about the importance of style. La La Land is great; it’s gorgeous and gripping and true to itself and successful on its own terms. It’s Technicolor-bright and seems to have been filmed almost entirely at magic hour, if that’s possible. It also made me think a lot about the film version of The Last Five Years—also a movie musical, also a bittersweet story of young love balanced against artistic ambition. It’s not quite fair to compare the two films, since they’re trying for —and both succeeding at—very different variations on those themes. But The Last Five Years sank without much of a ripple, and its songs (at least the lyrics), musical performances, and overall message are miles more nuanced and impressive than La La Land’s. The Last Five Years stays with you in a way that Chazelle's film doesn't; it just isn’t an overly stylish movie—and it needed to be, working as it was with an alinear narrative. It looked like a polished and formulaic Movie Version of something; it looked like Glee, so we treated it like Glee.

A formative aesthetic of some current childhoods, no doubt

A formative aesthetic of some current childhoods, no doubt

I don’t mean this as a style-vs-substance debate—I don’t have a solid enough sense of my opinion to make it one. It also wouldn’t be fair to La La Land or to The Last Five Years, both of which are excellent movies that got me to cry in public. I’m just interested by what grabs critical attention and what doesn’t, the slow-building cult classics and the flashes in the pan (remember The Artist? I loved it, I saw it twice in theaters. But I haven’t seen it since, and I couldn’t tell you the main characters’ names.) For now I’m feeling like I’d love it if we got to see more old-fashioned-format movie musicals. But I also wonder if anyone but Chazelle could pull this off in a way that feels real and original, with its own style.