Oscars: 'La La Land' Asks the Academy to Take Song and Dance Seriously

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese found out that original musicals aren't in voters' sweet spot. But Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still hope to charm in Damien Chazelle's romantic frontrunner.

Oscar's never been much of a song-and-dance man. Consider his treatment of 1952's Singin' in the Rain, widely considered the best movie musical of all time (it ranks No. 1 on the AFI list of the greatest movie musicals). Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's toe-tapper scored just two nominations — a supporting actress mention for screechy-voiced star Jean Hagen and another for music scoring — and won neither.

Consider, too, how often the Motion Picture Academy overlooked Hollywood's top musical performers. During the course of his career, Kelly got just one best actor nom, for 1945's Anchors Aweigh, and, as compensation, a 1952 honorary Oscar recognizing his choreographic work. Similarly, Fred Astaire was ignored until he was given an honorary Oscar in 1950 and then, late in life, a supporting actor nom for his appearance in the 1974 disaster pic The Towering Inferno. Ginger Rogers got no Oscar noms for dancing backward and in heels — instead, she won an Oscar only when she played it straight in 1940's Kitty Foyle. And most of Judy Garland's musical work earned little applause — although she won a special juvenile Oscar after starring in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, her next nom didn't come until 1954's A Star Is Born, which was as much soul-searing drama as it was light-hearted musical.

So why has Oscar so often given musicals and musical performers such short shrift? Possibly because they make it look too easy. Or maybe because they look as if they simply are having too much fun.

Enter La La Land, which Lionsgate opens in exclusive engagements Dec. 9. Damien Chazelle's homage to old-fashioned boy-meets-girl Hollywood musicals, a pastel-hued $30 million romance starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is already a hit on the festival circuit, picking up the audience award in Toronto and charming critics (it has a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And before any Academy voters dismiss it as a mere trifle, no matter how winning, they should consider the degree of difficulty involved in crafting a truly original movie musical.

After all, most Oscar-winning musicals have been adaptations of established Broadway hits like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) — they were essentially the franchises of their day — as well as the most recent musical victor, 2002's Chicago (2012's Les Miserables collected eight noms despite so-so reviews, but lost out on the big prize).

As for the handful of Oscar-winning musicals created directly for the screen, they tended to have the imprimatur of big-name composers — 1951's An American in Paris boasted music by the Gershwins, while 1958's Gigi was the work of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, hot off their stage success with My Fair Lady. By comparison, La La Land is built around a song score by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, all relative newcomers to film who have taken on the challenge of hooking moviegoers with tunes they've never heard before.

Further underscoring just how difficult it can be to bring an original musical to life, there's the fact that two giants of contemporary cinema, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, both failed spectacularly when they tried.

Coppola's effort was 1982's One From the Heart, which many viewed as folly. Set in Las Vegas, it told of a regular guy and gal, played by Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr, who split up and then rediscover their love for each other to songs by Tom Waits. Coppola described it as "a totally innocuous love story shot in a world of artifice" — which could almost double as a description of La La Land.

But Coppola also used the production to experiment with what he dubbed "electronic cinema." He shot the film from a specially outfitted Airstream trailer, from which he communicated with his actors on the soundstages where he'd built elaborate sets. (In retrospect, he had created a sort of "video village," now common on movie sets). But his budget ballooned to $23 million ($58 million in today's dollars), and when audiences failed to respond, he was left holding the bag, resulting in a bankruptcy that took him years to dig himself out from under. Unimpressed, the Academy awarded the film only one nomination, which went to Waits.

Scorsese attempted an even more ambitious original musical with 1977's New York, New York. Set in the postwar '40s, it starred Liza Minnelli as a big-band singer and Robert De Niro as a jazz saxophonist, whose careers ultimately put them at odds. (Again, it seems to prefigure La La Land.) With its period re-creation set pieces, its budget rose to $14 million ($56 million today). And it, too, was a flop, which the Academy ignored, even turning a deaf ear to the songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose "New York, New York" anthem would go on to become a standard. Later, Scorsese would insist, "I still think the idea of mixing a modern foreground with an artificial background, like old Hollywood, was a good idea."

Now, it's Chazelle's turn to pick up the mantle and prove that Scorsese was right all along.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus