“La La Land” and its lineage of escapism during rotten times

“The idea that something we create can make people happier, or forget whatever they want to forget, even for a couple of hours, is a wonderful thought”

“LA LA Land”, Damien Chazelle’s candy-coloured tribute to the musicals of Tinseltown’s golden age, arrives at a sensitive moment in Hollywood history. Buoyed by a freewheeling score from Justin Hurwitz and the chemistry of its leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the film is up for seven awards at this weekend’s Golden Globes, and has been widely tipped for Oscar glory. What’s more, if the film is a hit (as early box-office takings suggest), it could put the twinkle back in the toes of a genre long since viewed with suspicion by studios, who prefer their musicals to come packaged with pre-written pop smashes (“Pitch Perfect”, “Mamma Mia!”) if they make them at all.

But a look at the bigger picture yields a different view. “La La Land” twirled its way into American cinemas exactly one month after the most fractious presidential race in memory. Moreover, in light of last year’s #oscarssowhite controversy, many will feel that this year’s attention and critical adulation rightfully belong to more socially and politically minded fare like “Moonlight”, “Loving” and “Birth of a Nation”. In this context, the lovingly crafted schmaltz of “La La Land” becomes suddenly pregnant with meaning its creators could never have intended.

But for examples of escapist films flourishing in times of high political drama, we need only look to the films that inspired it. The modern musical begins in many ways with the pioneering work of Busby Berkeley, whose kaleidoscopic dance routines lifted the genre off of the stage and on to the screen during the Great Depression. Frequently reducing his dancers to exotically fanned rows of moving body parts, Berkeley found himself accused of promoting collectivist or even fascist ideals for his machine-like portrayal of the human body—but that didn’t stop audiences from flocking to the likes of “42nd Street”, “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade”, despite record unemployment in America.

The mass appeal of these films did not escape the notice of the era’s political players. Franklin Roosevelt famously observed of Shirley Temple, the era’s child star, that “it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And in one bizarre promotional stunt for “42nd Street”, Warner Bros teamed up with General Electric to send a train packed with stars contracted to the studio on a cross-country trip to Washington for Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933. A short film of the event even pitched “42nd Street” as “the New Deal in Musicals”, a nod to the incoming president’s economic stimulus package. (General Electric’s boss, Gerard Swope, helped draft one of the programme’s more controversial bills, the National Industrial Recovery Act.)

Looking back at “42nd Street” now, there’s little to suggest the tagline was much more than political opportunism. Like the same year’s “Footlight Parade”, the plot is pure Hollywood boilerplate, albeit laced with the odd tart one-liner (“How can we look [like] ‘prosperity’ when he’s got depression written all over that pan of his?” goes one zinger from the latter film). But the musical that perhaps comes closest to fulfilling General Electric’s “New Deal” hopes is “Gold Diggers of 1933”. Opening with a bona fide classic of the American songbook in “We’re in the Money”, the film climaxes with one of the few musical numbers of the era with real ambitions towards social commentary (“Remember My Forgotten Man”, whose title echoes an address given by Roosevelt in 1932).

“Gold Diggers”, depicting of a group of struggling young actresses living in a New York apartment, also feels surprisingly modern, light-heartedly reflecting a reality that will have felt very close to home for many Americans in the 1930s. (“Come on, let’s get up and look for work. I hate starving in bed.”) Indeed, contrast these scenes with “La La Land”’s own troupe of flat-sharing wannabe actresses, and “Gold Diggers of 1933” starts to look like kitchen-sink realism by comparison.

But reality does eventually bite in “La La Land”; it’s just that Mr Chazelle’s own attempts to reconcile dreams with reality end up coming across more personal than political. After the mother of all meet-cutes in a Los Angeles traffic jam at the start of the film, Mr Gosling and Ms Stone’s love affair blossoms before hitting the sort of rocky patch that has become a standard plot beat for so many modern screen romances. But instead of neatly resolving these obstacles, the film instead picks apart the starry-eyed fantasy it’s spent the last hour so lovingly constructing, a curious dynamic Mr Hurwitz looked to replicate in his soundtrack.

“The score was generally designed to create the feeling of lush romance and whimsy,” says the composer, who employed unorthodox recording and mixing techniques to anchor his songs even as the music soars with unbridled sentiment. For example, the vocals for two of the film’s big numbers were recorded live on set, so that viewers could hear “every smack of the lips, gulp and nuance” of the actors’ performances. “By keeping the vocals feeling grounded, it gave us more leeway to let the score be heightened, because we were creating a deliberate juxtaposition between the real and the whimsical.”

But can escapist films serve, as Roosevelt famously suggested, as a release valve during times of political strife? And is there something noble in that? Mr Hurwitz is naturally upbeat. “There are people who have much more ‘noble’ jobs than I do, but I do think that making people happy through art is important,” he says. “I personally rely on movies to transport me away from the stressful realities of my life—not that my life is that bad—and the idea that something we create can make people happier, or forget whatever they want to forget, even for a couple of hours, is a wonderful thought.”