Within the last few decades we’ve seen a huge resurgence in the popularity of the musical. With shows like Hamilton, Wicked, and Once, musicals have become more modern, edgy, and overall more accessible to a wide range of patrons of the arts. In this, the movie musical has also seen a regrowth in popularity – with reinventions of classic musicals likeHairspray (2007), Sweeny Todd (2007), and Les Miserables (2012) and original movie musicals like La La Land (2016) and Across the Universe (2007).
Hollywood began as a place for musicals – from the release of the first feature length “talkie”, The Jazz Singer in 1927, which featured seven songs and very little dialogue, these films were all the rage. Hollywood executives and studios alike prided themselves on the spectacle of the piece, dazzling audiences with elaborate choreography, beautiful scenery, and star studded casts. In 1930 alone Hollywood released over 100 movie musicals including The Vagabond King, The Rogue Song, Whoopee!, and King of Jazz.
Despite the overhaul of films, audience members became uninterested, and the genre received a revamp after the Warner Brother’s, in collaboration with Busby Berkley, began “using custom built booms and monorails, making the audience/camera a part of the choreography.” In 1993, this new technique was a hit with audience members in it’s debut during the 1933 film 42nd Street.
Through the 40s and 50s movie musicals reached their peak, serving as a distraction from the war. Six of the top ten box office hits in 1945 were movie musicals and the new age of film makers had begun to really hone in on the skills it took to craft a fun, yet complex movie musical. Musical stars like Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland became household names and films like Singin’ In the Rain (1952), On The Town (1949), and An American in Paris (1951) rocked the box office.
In the 1960s, the movie musical waned in popularity. Films like West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), and The Sound of Music (1965), Funny Girl (1968) were major successes, but ultimately, the 1960s had some serious musical flops, both commercially and critically. In the 1970s and 1980s, the successes of musical musicals were few and far in between with front runners Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), and Footloose (1984). And though the 1990s proved successful with Disney’s animated musical’s The Lion King (1994), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Little Mermaid (1989), live action movie musicals had very little success.
Still in the last 20 years, despite the wan in popularity, movie musicals have managed to recapture audience attention. Films like Moulin Rouge! (2001), Dreamgirls (2006),Chicago (2003), Sweeny Todd (2007), and Les Miserables (2012), all won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Chicago even managing to claim the title of Best Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards – making it the first movie musical to win the award since Oliver in 1968. These movie musicals were ttrue to the roots in their spectacle and camp, yet were lauded as universal successes… the formula of movie musicals remained, which brings into question what caused the movie musical to die? Still, more curious is the film La La Land, an original movie musical that starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, has garnered the attention of and received acclaim and rave reviews from audiences and critics alike for it’s reintroduction of jazz aged motifs and storytelling style reminiscent of the movie musical of old Hollywood.
La La Land revels in it’s comparison by using shots and scenes directly from the most poignant movie musicals of the century (hello, Ryan Gosling channeling Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain.) And more importantly the film doesn’t just draw from musicals, it takes pieces from other genres. “Chazelle, who directed the Oscar-winning feature Whiplash in 2014, told Ew La La Land was inspired by everything from Los Angeles traffic and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to short stories from Ry Cooder and paintings by artists like David Hockney and Henri Matisse.”
And maybe that’s been the major draw of the movie musicals from the last few years as a whole – the major successes have been rehashings of the same story that you saw on Broadway or a community theatre. You know the songs, you know the story, you know the lines, and maybe that’s what makes the musicals of the last few years so effortlessly charming and undeniably delightful. Though La La Land is original, there’s a formula that it follows and that’s what makes it such a success.