In 1933, things were not going well. The United States was deep in the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl was ravaging vast stretches of farmland. That same year, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers took to the screen for the first time together in the whimsical song-and-dance film, Flying Down to Rio. It was a dark time, and the movie musical was the escapist entertainment that viewers desperately needed. So, it seems no great coincidence that in 2016 movie musicals are making their return to the screen.
If only IRL relationships could be so expertly choreographed.
La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is an echo of the upbeat films first produced in the 1930s, with its vivid color scheme and jazzy score. Stone and Gosling's dancing might not be as technically skilled as that of Astaire and Rogers back in the day, but the choreography marks the comeback of a beloved style of ballroom dancing—fewer over-the-top, Dancing With the Stars-style tricks, more passion. It's exactly what 2016, the incomprehensibly awful year that it has been, needs.
The story of La La Land is simple. An aspiring actor (Stone) and a jazz musician (Gosling) have an angry exchange in a traffic jam—Gosling honking at Stone, Stone flipping him off. But they keep running into each other. Eventually deciding that they're fated to be together, they fall in love and dance with the skyline of Los Angeles as their backdrop. With a huge chorus and a number of tap routines, it's totally cheesy. It's also totally life-affirming.
The necessity of La La Land hinges on its sincerity and surrealness.
A movie (a musical, no less) that doesn't overtly grapple with politics may seem a frivolity right now. But the necessity of La La Land hinges on its sincerity and surrealness. After all, people don't actually break out in song and dance anytime they're overcome with emotion—but sometimes, the song-and-dance numbers, absurd though they may seem, articulate viewers' feelings in a way that words can't. Movie musicals affirm for audiences that other people have felt the things they feel, too; they're not alone.
Musicals are a heightened form of storytelling, eschewing realism for blatantly larger-than-life characters and situations. Put one on a stage, and its visuals are physically big enough for an audience to appreciate even from the rear mezzanine. Put one in a movie, and suddenly you have a piece of art that's unapologetically enormous, but also capable of being consumed through the intimacy of a laptop screen.
Viewers could slip out of their daily lives and into a movie theater, emerging an hour and a half later with a renewed sense of hope and inspiration.
La La Land isn't the only release of its kind in recent years—the success of Pitch Perfect, Glee, the film adaptations of Into the Woods and Les Misérables, and even High School Musical, have shown a craving for song and dance on the big and small screens. But as an original musical targeting adults instead of children and teens, La La Land is unique.
One of the reasons movie musicals (e.g., Top Hat, Swing Time, 42nd Street) enjoyed such great success in the 20th century was that they provided a brief respite from the uncertainty of the political and economic climate. Viewers could slip out of their daily lives and into a movie theater, emerging an hour and a half later with a renewed sense of hope and inspiration, however small.
One might even argue that this is a legitimate form of self-care.
In 2016, it's important to remember this kind of escapism doesn't have to mean turning a blind eye to growing threats to our democracy. It means taking stock of your own well-being, granting yourself a moment to actually feel joy, and then returning to reality a little refreshed, with more energy for action. One might even argue that this is a legitimate form of self-care.
There is power in embracing an unapologetic earnestness; in times when the amount of bad news far outweighs good news, it's all the more necessary to make room for the saccharine. La La Land offers up a surreal universe where people belt out their emotions, where they find unity in dance numbers, and where love is a central force in the world. In its excess of hope, it posits a heartening possibility. That is, as the future moves into a darker unknown, art will continue to be an outlet not just for rage and protest and political commentary. It will also be a place for healing.