Six old-school musicals to watch if you just can’t wait for La La Land

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Moya Crockett
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La La Land, the sparkling modern-day musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a struggling musician and actress trying to ‘make it’ in Los Angeles, has been sending critics into swoons of delight since it first started showing at film festivals last summer. At the Golden Globes, it picked up more awards than any other movie (six in total, including best actor for Gosling, best actress for Stone, and best director for Damien Chazelle); it’s also been nominated for a staggering 11 Baftas, and is anticipated to do well at the Oscars in February.

Sometimes, films that are critically lauded aren’t the most accessible to the woman on the street. But that’s not the case for La La Land, which is just as dreamy, enchanting and life-affirming as you’d hope. Linus Sandgren’s glittering, sun-soaked cinematography is so beautiful it will make your chest ache, Stone and Gosling’s famous chemistry is as electric as ever, and Chazelle’s script and direction draws on all the most gorgeously romantic tropes of vintage Hollywood without ever being predictable. Seriously – there’s no way you’ll guess the ending. 

If you haven’t managed to see it yet – or if you’ve seen it and want more, more, more – La La Land is steeped in references to past movies, particularly those from the 1950s and 1960s. And from Singin’ in the Rain to An American in Paris, they’re all perfect for whetting, or sating, your appetite for a song-and-dance spectacular. Here are six brilliant musicals to get you into a La La Land kind of mood.

1. Swing Time (1936)

This black-and-white musical scratches many of the same itches as La La Land, despite having been released more than 80 years beforehand. Like many 1930s comedies, the plot is delightfully silly: Fred Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a gambler and dancer who – through a series of ridiculous contrivances too complicated to explain here – ends up the dance partner of Penny (Ginger Rogers). The two attempt to get a dancing gig at a New York club together, and although Lucky is engaged to another woman, we’re sure you can guess how the story ends.

Widely regarded as one of the best films made by legendary dance duo Rogers and Astaire, it’s an effervescent romantic-comedy-musical that will have you twirling around the kitchen for days after watching it. Keep an eye out for the ballroom scene with a twinkling, star-studded backdrop: that, as well as Astaire's tuxedo and Rogers' white dress, are directly referenced (in even more transcendently gorgeous fashion) in La La Land.

Buy or rent via Amazon here.

2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Damien Chazelle has directly cited this New Wave French/German musical, starring the unfeasibly attractive Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, as a major influence on La La Land. The pair play Genevieve and Guy, a young couple in the French coastal town of Cherbourg in the late 1950s. They’re desperately, madly in love, but when Guy is drafted to fight in the Algerian War, it looks like their affair might end in tragedy.

Everything in Cherbourg is deliciously over-the-top, from the characters – swooning and sighing and trembling all over the place – to the saturated technicolour sets (if you like the stylised prettiness of Wes Anderson movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, you’ll love this). And don’t even get us started on the clothes: Deneuve’s chic candy-coloured costumes alone are enough to fuel a thousand Pinterest boards.

The script is entirely sung, almost like an opera, and it’s in French, so subtitles. But don’t let either of those things put you off: this is a beautifully bittersweet musical that will make your heart hurt in the best possible way.

Watch via Vimeo here.

3. High Society (1956)

Ryan Gosling spent four months learning how to play the piano before filming started on La La Land, in order to make his performance as jazz pianist Sebastian as convincing as possible. High Society is also a musical about a jazz musician, but it’s safe to say that its two male leads – Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra – probably didn’t have to brush up on their skills too much beforehand.

Crosby plays C.K. Dexter Haven, a fictional jazz superstar still in love with his socialite ex-wife Tracy (the ever-regal Grace Kelly, in her final film appearance before becoming Princess Consort of Monaco). But Tracy is about to get married to the uptight George – and when cunning tabloid reporter Mike (Frank Sinatra) is sent to cover her wedding, a love quadrangle of epic proportions arises.

As you might expect from a musical starring Crosby and Sinatra, the songs are some of the best bits of High Society – particularly the ones featuring original jazz icon Louis Armstrong and his band. But it also offers a funny, breezy skewering of upper-crust East Coast life, and it looks gorgeous.

Buy or rent via YouTube here.

4. An American in Paris (1951)

This iconic musical swept awards season in 1951 for its depiction of a struggling artist trying to make a name for himself in the City of Lights. The main plotline here is the bumpy romance between struggling American painter Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and French shop girl Lise (Leslie Caron): he’s smitten by her, she’s less interested in him, and there are several crossed wires to be untangled and alternative lovers to be dispatched with before they can finally fall into one another’s arms.

The songs (written and scored by George and Ira Gershwin) are magnificent, and the dance routines totally joyous. But this also a story about trying to carve out a place for yourself in a tough but magical city. Jerry and his similarly broke friends are unabashedly passionate about Paris, their art, and the relationship between the two, something that’s echoed by La La Land’s Sebastian and Mia and their attitude towards Los Angeles. (Sebastian is a struggling pianist obsessed with L.A.’s forgotten sites of jazz history, while Stone’s aspiring actress Mia gets a kick just out of being near Hollywood.) One to watch if you’re considering giving up on your dreams.

Buy or rent via Google Play here.

5. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

If An American in Paris captures La La Land’s spirit of struggling to make a success of your art, and High Society shares Chazelle’s film’s veneration of jazz, Singin’ in the Rain is the older musical that explores the ridiculousness, falseness and brutality of Hollywood.

Made in the early 1950s, Singin’ is set in the silent movie-era of the late 1920s, when stars would often sign contracts with specific studios and co-stars for their whole careers. (In La La Land, Stone’s Mia works as a barista at one of these same history-steeped studios.) The late Debbie Reynolds is sweetly magnificent as Kathy, a former chorus girl who teams up with actor Don to help him transition from silent films to movie musicals. This means her lending her dulcet tones to Don’s on-screen partner, a vile Hollywood starlet with a horrible speaking voice – with hilarious (and romantic) results. One of the all-time greats.

Buy or rent via Amazon here.

6. It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

For all its swoons and sparkles, La La Land is spiked with sadness and regret: unusual for a musical today, but particularly unorthodox back in the mid-1950s, when Gene Kelly (yes, him again) directed It’s Always Fair Weather. Set ten years after the end of WW2, it tells the story of three American soldiers and one-time best friends whose post-war lives have taken them on very different paths.

Fair Weather didn’t do brilliantly at the box office at the time of its release, perhaps because its downbeat, sarcastic tone was so different to the jolly offerings being churned out elsewhere in Hollywood at the time. Viewed today, however, its hilarious commentary on relationships – and how they don’t always turn out the way you expect – makes perfect sense.

Buy via iTunes here.