How Musicals Got Their Groove Back

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the 'La La Land' trailer just might be the movie musical at its best

Damien Chazelle broke onto the scene in 2014 with his first major feature film Whiplash (following 2009's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), about a young man’s obsessive focus on becoming a concert drummer. Today, the trailer for his new movie La La Land dropped, promising another look at music on film — but instead of blisters and trauma, this time it looks like Chazelle’s got love on his mind.

Chazelle is not immune to visual clichés (note to every filmmaker under 40: Stahhhhp with the lens flares; Paul Thomas Anderson showed us everything we needed to know about lens flares in Punch Drunk Love, and nobody’s going to do it better), but the majority of this first look at La La Land is a gauzy and delicate vision of Los Angeles in its magic hour, when the light is either blue or pink or purple or orange, but somehow not any one enough to say for certain, and you can’t tell if the day is about to start or finish. Emma Stone swishes her skirt in a row of Technicolor dresses, Ryan Gosling walks down a pier at dusk. Together they float up out of a planetarium into a galaxy, out of a tunnel and into a Van Gogh. Their faces peek out of crowds and darkness, smiling like they’re just a minute away from tears. Over it all is the whistle and then croon of Ryan Gosling, singing “City of Stars,” an original song from the film. “Is this the start of something wonderful and new,” he croons, “or one more dream that I cannot make true?” For musicals and for movies and for those of us who seek comfort from them, I sure hope it's the former.

The apathy of the boomers and the irony of the Gen X'ers meant that for the decades following the heyday of supermusicals like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, the genre seemed idealistic and old-fashioned, but hits like Chicago, Dreamgirls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and, yes, Glee have revived the commercial potential of the movie musical. Now studios are facing an audience that grew up performing Tevye in high school musicals — this is an audience primed not just to understand but to believe in the pure affective state that exists in the space between language and music. Shows like Rent and Wicked remain relevant long after they’ve closed on Broadway through cast recordings and regional productions, where new productions like Hamilton, In the Heights, and Fun Home have invigorated the form onstage, opening new possibilities through diverse, imaginative storytelling. But while stage musicals are booming, the movie musical hasn’t had a masterpiece since it first reemerged in the early 2000s with the one-two punch of Dancer in the Dark and Moulin Rouge.

Studios have tried to get their groove back with Broadway adaptations — Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and the list goes on — but as it turns out, the program for movie-musical success is more complicated than a simple copy and paste. Where onstage, the audience is reliant on words to carry them through a story because they watch the entire show from a single vantage point, in a movie, there’s the danger of language and images making each other redundant. Some filmmakers tackle the task by removing speech altogether, like Julie Taymor did with Across the Universe. Some hedge their bets like Rob Marshall did in Chicago and Nine by making the musical sequences literal performances that characters acknowledge as such. But from Meet Me in St. Louis to The Little Mermaid, the best movie musicals are the ones that treat music as an emotional language that pushes its way into existence in moments of intensity. The power of movie musicals is in their ability to make feelings real by making them visible. Only time will tell how Damien Chazelle has crafted his approach to the genre, but for now watching flashes of Emma Stone wandering into crowds that dance without her feels like the longed-for proof that musicals at their best are pure magic.

Trailers are made as a way to sell movies to their potential audiences, and while it’s hard to say movies could come up with a better way to advertise, most people watch trailers and never see the movie — maybe because any moviegoer who has ever been bamboozled into watching a tragedy they thought was a comedy could tell you a trailer is a different experience from the movie. A good trailer exists on its own — cinema becomes haiku. La La Land won’t arrive in theaters until the start of December, and in the time that will take for it to be released, maybe all of our problems will have ended — maybe we’ll be disarmed and demilitarized, Trumpless and gunless. But for today, the 90-second snap of the La La Land trailer was the vision of love I needed to get by.