Eight films to watch before you see La La Land

Get in the mood for Damien Chazelle’s swooning musical with these toe-tapping classics.


Ella Donald

Paying tribute to filmmakers such as Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, La La Land is a delight for lovers of classic Hollywood musicals. But there are plenty of inspirations beyond Tinsel Town’s Golden Age. There are hidden treasures in each frame and every song, just waiting to be discovered. Here is our guide to just some of the films that writer/director Damien Chazelle channels in his tribute to an era of tap shoes and spontaneous showtunes.

An American in Paris (1951)

Inspired by George Gershwin’s 1928 composition of the same name, this is the story of World War Two expat Jerry (Gene Kelly) trying to survive as a painter in Paris, where he falls for his best friend’s lover. The film is best known for its astonishing climax – a 17-minute long ballet that cost $500,000 to shoot and pays tribute to Toulouse-Lautrec and other post-Impressionist painters, flitting between scenes inspired by each. It’s a painterly aesthetic that Chazelle adopts for his film’s namedropping final number.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Even if you’ve only seen a single frame from Jacques Demy’s candy-coloured Palme d’Or winner, it’s easy to see just how much La La Land is indebted to it. This is the tale of a young woman named Genevive (Catherine Denenuve) who falls for a mechanic named (Nino Castelnuovo) before they’re separated when Guy is drafted to serve in the Algerian War. Famously more melancholic than Hollywood fare at the time, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg sees a whirlwind romance give way to thoughts of might have been, just as in Chazelle’s new film. Beyond the blue and pink saturated frames, there is sadness, longing and regret.

On the Town (1949)

Fun fact: this was the first feature musical to be shot on location. On the Town attempts to pack as many icons into this whistle stop tour as possible, including Central Park, the Empire State Building and the American Museum of Natural History. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin are sailors on shore leave in New York City, whose plans to “pick up a date, maybe seven or eight” are joined by a cross-town search for one girl, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen).

Funny Face (1957)

Stanley Donen’s colourful musicals took the genre from the studio backlot to the streets of New York and Paris, and his 1957 film Funny Face plays an integral part in how modern-day Los Angeles is rendered in La La Land. Cazelle also draws inspiration from this tale of a shy bookshop clerk (Audrey Hepburn) who becomes a fashion icon and is whisked away from Greenwich Village to Paris via dream sequences. Look out for an homage to the photo shoot with Hepburn in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Another Kelly and Donen collaboration (the pair’s second of three), this one needs little introduction. Just as La La Land is a musical for the digital age, with jokes about the declining quality of movies and musical numbers being interrupted by ringing phones, Singin’ in the Rain is about cinema at a similar time of transition. There’s references aplenty to this in La La Land, most noticeably in a montage of auditions for bad projects and a whirlwind sequence towards the end of the film.

The Red Balloon (1956)

It may only be 34 minutes in length, but this nearly dialogue-free film gives the titular ruby coloured balloon a life of its own. Albert Lamorisse’s film is a journey through the streets of Paris on a young boy’s (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) morning trip to school and the following days, simple and beautiful. There’s a direct blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to it in La La Land in the form of a red balloon popping up in a pivotal scene.

Summer Stock (1950)

Judy Garland plays a farm owner who allows a theatre troupe (led, of course, by Gene Kelly) to rehearse in her barn in what is essentially a two-hander. The most memorable scene sees Garland don a fedora, tuxedo jacket and nylons to sing ‘Get Happy’, but Chazelle has publicly spoken about the film’s influence in the form of another scene in which Gene Kelly’s dance partner is a stray newspaper. Summer Stock is evoked in La La Land in the small moments – a dusk stroll along the boardwalk that falls into solitary song being one of them – where music is life itself.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse famously dance through a moonlit Central Park in this vibrant backstage musical about an ageing stage star (Fred Astaire) looking to make his triumphant comeback. It’s one not without its challenges, a show that is littered with the hard work and sacrifice familiar in backstage musicals. Chazelle gives Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone their own moonlight shuffle (albeit in the Hollywood Hills amid a sea of Priuses), but Minnelli’s influence is hard to miss.

Published 12 Jan 2017

Tags: Damien Chazelle Emma Stone Gene Kelly Ryan Gosling

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