March 2017

Adventures in La La Land

14 Oscar nominations (and six wins) aren’t the only unusual thing about this movie musical.

As we discussed in our March 2017 cover story, La La Land received a record-tying number of nominations for the 89th Academy Awards. It wound up winning six Oscars, including Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. But this film is notable for more than just the number of awards it’s racked up. It’s also one of the few movie musicals in the past several decades that was conceived and produced entirely for the screen, containing no pre-existing storyline or music from either a Broadway show or anything else.

The most recent major example of a similar film was 2006’s Once, which starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as two struggling musicians who almost but not quite form a romantic attachment in Dublin, Ireland. Although some of its songs—written by real-life musicians Hansard and Irglová—appeared in different recorded versions slightly before Once was released, they were all composed with the film in mind. In this scene from the movie, Hansard and Irglová run through the song “Falling Slowly” in the back room of a Dublin music store. “Falling Slowly” would go on to win the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song. And five years later, Once would be adapted into a multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, taking a path from screen to stage that’s highly atypical.

Although only a small number of movie musicals can claim to be completely original works, many feature either songs or a storyline (also called a “book” in Broadway parlance) that were specifically written for the film in question. The Disney classic Mary Poppins, for example, takes its story from P. L. Travers’ children’s book of the same name, but its songs were all composed especially for the screen by Richard and Robert Sherman. One of them, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”—seen here as sung in the movie by Dick Van Dyke—won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

On the other side of the spectrum, many movie musicals have taken pre-existing songs and fitted them into a new script for the cinema. A fine example of this is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, which many critics and movie buffs regard as one of the greatest films in history. All but two of its songs originally appeared in previous movie musicals. The tune that gave the movie its title, seen below, was first composed for The Hollywood Revue of 1929 but is now forever associated with Gene Kelly’s indelible performance of almost 25 years later.

How does La La Land compare to these celebrated movie musicals? If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a taste, via its official trailer.