The awards-season favorite La La Land is a tribute to classic Hollywood musicals, and while director Damien Chazelle doesn’t strictly follow the formula, he clearly knows his stuff. From Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone‘s first duet, to the climactic dream ballet, the film’s musical numbers pay homage to some of the greatest song-and-dance scenes in Hollywood history. Here’s a guide to the musical numbers in La La Land (warning: some spoilers), along with videos of the classics. (Pro tip: If you’d like to spend the rest of the day in a happy daze of internet movie musical clips, just start clicking on links.)
The Not-Quite-Love Song The cliché is that characters in musicals are always singing about how they love each other, but in the interest of keeping up dramatic (and sexual) tension, they often sing about how they don’t love each other. “A Lovely Night,” Gosling and Stone’s first duet in La La Land, is such a song: They’re singing about how the romantic setting is wasted on the two of them, since they’re clearly not in love at all.
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Richard Rodgers called this style of tune an “almost love song,” and he and Oscar Hammerstein wrote a lot of them, like “If I Loved You” from Carousel and “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! “A Lovely Night” is a little more combative, like “I’m Not At All in Love” from The Pajama Game or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in Shall We Dance (above). Other notable examples: “A Fine Romance” from Swing Time, “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls, “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon.
The Party Scene Scenes like La La Land‘s “Someone in the Crowd” number, which takes place at a fancy Hollywood party, are a perfect excuse for choreographers and costume designers to flex their muscles. These scenes almost always have a fish-out-of-water element, where our protagonists feel like they don’t quite fit in — like Shirley Maclaine’s title character in the “Rich Man’s Frug” number from Sweet Charity (above), which Chazelle has named as a major influence. Other notable examples: “Drop That Name” from Bells Are Ringing, “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story, “Born to Hand Jive” from Grease, the Bohemian cafe scene from Funny Face.
The Falling-in-Love Dance Part of the charm of musicals is the idea that two people, no matter if they’re mismatched or total strangers, can fall in love over the course of a song. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ whole filmography was built on this idea, and you can watch love bloom between the legendary dancers in numbers like “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat, “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee, and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from Let’s Dance. In La La Land, Gosling and Stone float into the stars at the Griffith Observatory Planetarium, and their movements mimic what is perhaps the most beautiful example of this scene ever filmed: Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s stroll to “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon (above). Others to watch: “Shall We Dance” from The King and I, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” from White Christmas.
The Showstopper Solo As movie musicals came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, they began to take on weightier emotional themes. That made space for the kind of number that Emma Stone performs during her audition scene: A big, emotionally devastating solo, shot with minimal staging, and often sung directly to the camera. “The Fools Who Dream” from La La Land has a lot in common with the title song performed by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret; they’re both story songs that capture the character’s spirit. The original, though, was sung by Liza’s mother Judy Garland in A Star is Born: “The Man That Got Away” (above). That number, like Stone’s song, was performed live on camera, rather than with a pre-recording. Other showstopper solos include “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, “My Man” from Funny Girl, “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, “Wicked Little Town (Reprise)” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and arguably, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables.
The Dream Ballet The final musical sequence of La La Land is a true throwback. The “dream ballet,” a fantasy or dream sequence told entirely through dance, was popularized on Broadway before finally making it to the big screen in Oklahoma! Often, these scenes contain re-enactments of the film’s events, like the dream ballets from Oklahoma!, On the Town, and An American in Paris. Other times, they’re used to tell a story-within-the-story, like “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain, “Girl Hunt” from The Band Wagon, “Louise’s Ballet” from Carousel, and “The Pirate Ballet” from The Pirate. La La Land‘s sequence most closely resembles the ballet that concludes An American in Paris, from which it borrows some visual elements (including the hand-drawn sets). Watch a clip above, or the whole thing here.
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‘La La Land’ featurette: ‘The Look’: