All the musicals and classic movies that inspired the film and more.
Like his leading man in La La Land, filmmaker Damien Chazelle seems to be holding onto the past with all the movie’s nostalgic flavor. As if he just wants to make an old-fashioned film. But it’s definitely a fresh, new, modern musical that only uses what’s come before it to move forward.
Of course, it still has many direct antecedents behind it, and Chazelle is never shy about recognizing things his movies are inspired by. Below is a double-size edition of Movies to Watch compiling the major connections that are now your duty as a proper cinephile to catch up with.
“I think the romanticism of some of the old Hollywood movies, everything from Charlie Chaplin to Douglas Sirk melodramas. A lot of the old Technicolor movies, just the way they use color. Anything that was shot in color in the ’40s and ’50s is already an inspiration for me just by the way they look.” – Damien Chazelle, Birth.Movies.Death.
Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936)
The best place to begin is with the earliest films Chazelle has cited as influences, and it’s great that they both happen to be musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The filmmaker has likened the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to that of the dancing legends, and he reportedly had the cast and crew of La La Land watch Top Hat.
Stone’s character mentions this landmark film twice, and that might seem to be where the relevance ends. But surely Chazelle also thought of Casablanca’s ending, where the lovers don’t wind up together, when doing something similar with his La La Land characters. Also you can imagine Gosling’s Sebastian thinking, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine,” when he sees Stone’s Mia has entered his club.
An American in Paris (1951)
There’s almost a similar unhappily ever after in this Gene Kelly musical, with his leading lady initially settling for another man. Like La La Land, it climaxes with a lengthy dream ballet imagining the two true lovers actually together, their fantasy involving the city of Paris and a Gershwin tune.
“It was kind of a necessity at the outset because I love them so much and because I think they really speak in a very fundamental way to what musicals can be and what musicals were in that era, which is just these incredible, audacious, experimental movies dressed up as mainstream crowd-pleasing entertainment. It’s somehow that Holy Grail marriage that all filmmakers kind of dream of – of wild, artistic risk-taking combined with real, mass audience. That’s what those dream ballets to me represented.” – Damien Chazelle to A.V. Club
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
You can’t make a musical set in the movie business without recalling this popular classic, which also stars Kelly, and Chazelle is hardly hiding the link when he puts Gosling on a lamppost at the start of the “A Lovely Night” number. There is no rain, however, because the L.A. of La La Land more realistically is always set on another day of sun.
The Belle of New York (1952)
Astaire returns to the list, this time opposite Vera-Ellen, for a less-remembered MGM musical that’s notable for being “the ‘dancing on air’ picture.” At the end of the movie, the leads do step out into the night sky, defying gravity much like in the Griffith Observatory scene in La La Land. Effects have gotten a lot better in 64 years.
The Band Wagon (1953)
Astaire also stars in this musical, one of Chazelle’s very favorites, this time opposite Cyd Charisse. It’s another of the films he looked at for inspiration for his own dream ballet sequence, and his appreciation for how “underneath the Technicolor razzle-dazzle and the swinging score, it’s a thoughtful, bittersweet story about aging, compromise and second chances” sounds fitting for his own musical.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Not only is the iconic James Dean movie featured within the movie, but Gosling and Stone’s characters leave the theater and go to the Griffith Observatory they just saw on screen. Until La La Land, this was the one movie you’d be reminded of when visiting the L.A. landmark, but now you’ll be wishing you could dance on air inside, too.
“I love Griffith on a very personal level. It’s a monument the same way that the Arc de Triomphe or Big Ben are monuments, but those rise out of a clustered urban environment. Griffith sits atop a hill as if it’s in its own world. That speaks to the sprawl and the spirit of Los Angeles. It’s totally, authentically, ironically its own thing.” – Damien Chazelle in Entertainment Weekly
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Chazelle apparently has a shot from this weepy Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr romance as his computer screensaver, and he told Entertainment Weekly, “This really reminded me of what I wanted La La Land to feel like.” Alas, his movie doesn’t seem to be causing quite as many tears to be shed.
West Side Story (1961) and 8½ (1963)
The only real reference made to another film or filmmaker in Chazelle’s script, for the purpose of emulation, is a description of the opening traffic jam number as “Jerome Robbins-style.” And Robbins’s most essential movie credit is West Side Story, which he co-directed. Another direct influence on that first sequence is Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½, which is also set in the movie business but more importantly for La La Land begins with a crazy traffic jam.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
One of the most noted influences, by critics and Chazelle himself, are these two colorful musicals by Jacques Demy. The later film was featured recently here on a list of movies to watch after the election, written before the surprise results, and it’s appropriate to bring it up again for La La Land, which has been described as “what this country needs right now.” The new movie isn’t something to make us feel good in bad times, though, and in fact it’s more an illustration of this country’s attitude for much of 2016, living in a fantasy world less and less as the reality of the dream candidate Clinton not being elected president sets in. La La Land is no escape, it’s a reflection.
“One of our favorite movies is The Young Girls of Rochefort. After The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it was the next Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand musical, and that movie opens with – in that case it’s just dance. There’s no singing but it’s this big world-establishing number with great dancing and big orchestration. That’s always been one of the favorite scores for me and Damien in the way that Legrand was able to marry a jazz rhythm section, and in some cases a jazz big band, with a full blown romantic orchestra and do it in such a danceable way. – Justin Hurwitz in Variety
Manhattan (1979) and Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Two Woody Allen movies come to mind during La La Land, neither of which may have been on Chazelle’s brain while making it. The first is Manhattan, which features another memorable romantic sequence in a planetarium. The other is his own homage to classic musicals, Everyone Says I Love You, which features Goldie Hawn dancing on air along the Seine that is similar to Stone’s dance on air in that planetarium sequence in La La Land.
One From the Heart (1982)
Not every great director is able to pull of an old-fashioned musical successfully, and Francis Ford Coppola is one of those failures, to a degree. Filmed at the same studio lot as La La Land, this ambitious movie featuring songs by Tom Waits has some good traits and plenty of bad ones, but it’s worth watching to see something that should have been embraced on the level of Chazelle’s effort yet just didn’t work.
Falling Down (1993) and Pulp Fiction (1994)
In addition to musicals that take place all around the world, Chazelle also looked at some of his favorite L.A.-set films, including these two and also Boogie Nights, Sunset Boulevard, and Short Cuts. He was especially inspired by Falling Down’s traffic jam opening for the first number in La La Land. And he hired David Wasco, the production designer from Pulp Fiction, to give his movie a similar timeless look. “Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest movies ever for how it uses unglamorous L.A. locations and yet somehow completely creates its own unique world,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “It was an extraordinary challenge, but we tried to do the same thing from a different angle.” And here’s what he has to say about Falling Down:
“That movie was one of the many reasons why I thought L.A. was a hellhole. And I never wanted to set foot in it. That movie paints such a hellish portrait of the city that I thought it would be interesting, now that I live in L.A. and have fallen deeply in love with the city, to start with literally the thing that freaked me out the most about the city and the thing that irritates more people than anything about L.A.. That kind of endless grind of traffic, where most of what you see around you is concrete and you’re surrounded by smog and exhaust fumes and burning sunlight. But instead of Michael Douglas storming out of his car, it’s a dance number.”
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Ultimately, La La Land is less a throwback and more a kind of deconstruction of movie musicals and the fantasies they entail. It plays with the genre and plays with the difference between reality and the dream world of song and dance scenes. Lars von Trier’s Bjork-led Dancer in the Dark does this a little more effectively but also much differently, keeping a stark contrast between one musical-loving woman’s imagined numbers and her increasingly depressing real life.
It’s true, jazz is dying. Or at least people don’t appreciate it like they should. Like Mia, they’ve just got the wrong association, because they’re not educated about the history and importance of jazz, nor are they familiar with the good stuff. As a primer for anyone who doesn’t have a Sebastian by their side, Ken Burns’s miniseries for PBS is an essential primer.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Another vital documentary is Thom Andersen’s essay film on the depiction of L.A. in movies. Originally conceived for a CalArts lecture, the feature went more than a decade as an undistributed delight and only just recently found official release. La La Land is one of the movies that begs for an add-on or sequel to the doc, especially because it makes the city look nice but then explicitly has characters making fun of the romanticization of L.A.
“I absolutely love that documentary. Los Angeles is weirdly the most filmed city in the world because the movie industry has been there forever but its one of the least physical cities in film. It doesn’t have a specific place in film the way that New York or Paris does. Which is why everyone has their own idea of L.A., and many are not the most pleasant. But if treated the right way, L.A. is a city that can hold its own as a romantic playground the way that other great cities in the world do.” – Damien Chazelle to Entertainment Weekly
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
Chazelle has now made three features. His second, Whiplash, is very well known, but this black and white debut, originally intended to be his Harvard thesis film, is worth looking at especially after La La Land because it’s also a musical involving jazz and which also pays homage to MGM classics while doing its own thing.
Blue Valentine (2010) and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Finally, I have to include two previous movies starring Gosling. The latter also stars Stone and is the duo’s first romantic pairing and immediately showed they had the potential to be another Fred and Ginger or Hepburn and Tracy or Powell and Loy (all duos Chazelle has compared them to). Then they reunited for Gangster Squad, which again is only worth seeing for their chemistry but proved to Chazelle they had that old Hollywood thing. Blue Valentine, in which he stars opposite Michelle Williams, is a rough movie about the destruction of a marriage. The dinner scene in La La Land after Sebastian surprises Mia is harsh but is nothing compared to this.
This list features additional curatorial contribution from Fernando Andrés.