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Consider Rogers and Astaire’s most famous works, films like Top Hat and Shall We Dance, movies Chazelle references with varying degrees of explicitness in La La Land.The musicals of the 1930s were escapist, to be sure—singing and dancing in the teeth of the Great Depression—but the films occurred in a version of present day.The issue of the day involved, not unlike La La Land, a changing Hollywood: one moving from silent films to “talkies.” A key plot point in in Singin’ in the Rain revolves around a studio responding to the release of The Jazz Singer, the first Hollywoodfilm with synchronized sound and one of the most famous musicals of its day.Of course, The Jazz Singer, though progressive for its historical moment, featured Al Jolson parading around in black face.The latter longs to open a “real” jazz club to save the genre; Mia longs for Old Hollywood, a poster of Ingrid Bergman on her wall.Eventually they long for each other, and Chazelle’s camera conspicuously longs for the days of the Hollywood musical.For the Hollywoodmusicals of the 1930s, escapism could be found in a European setting or a “cheek-to-cheek” dance routine.
La La Land’s cultural language speaks in the vocabulary of loss.
Like Trump voters pining for an idealized, mythic past, La La Land articulates a displaced, if no less powerful, nostalgia. The allusions begin with Rogers and Astaire, whom Chazelle first saw while studying film at Harvard.
Of the moment he discovered Rogers and Astaire, he told the New York Times this fall that he felt like he’s “been sleeping on a gold mine.” The Times interview was even aptly titled “‘La La Land’ Makes Musicals Matter Again,” beating the reader about the head with Trump-ish sloganeering.
And on the movie goes, recalling in form and function the 1940s and 1950s aesthetics of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and the grand Hollywood musical—a vision of the past reanimated in the present.
The film has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a piece of popular art in which to rest for a moment at the close of a punishing year. However, the politics of the past do not satisfy universally.