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There Were Quite a Number of Musicals That Came before ‘La La Land’ – and Maybe It’s Time You Checked out a Few
February 25, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Before we learn whether La La Land sweeps the Oscars Sunday night (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET), let’s put it in a little context.

Over the years Hollywood has made dozens of transcendent musicals – and this isn’t one of them.

It’s okay. It gets an A for effort, and so do stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. In the pantheon of song-and-dance cinema, La La Land comes up ordinary.

Hollywood loves it, of course (“Look, Muffy, a movie about us!”). Television, to its credit, has not been so entirely swept away.

Saturday Night Live featured a sketch last month (left) in which Aziz Ansari is hauled into the 9th precinct and told he’s going to be “put away for a very very long time” because he just liked La La Land. He didn’t love it.

“Too many montages in the middle,” he tells a couple of angry cops. “No black people.” He admits at one point he fell asleep.

The cops call him a “sick pervert.”

In any case, whether or not La La Land runs the awards table again Sunday, its finest legacy would be if it inspired Hollywood to make more musicals in the future and inspired viewers to watch more musicals from the past.

Toward that last end, we happen to have five suggestions – not to throw shade on La La Land, but just to remind us that if we’re celebrating Hollywood musicals, let’s also celebrate the Promised Land.  

My Fair Lady (1964)

The best musical ever. If the ending sparks some debate – Eliza and the professor as a couple is a stretch – the story is delightful, packed with every nuance from humor to exasperation.

Beyond Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the leads, Stanley Holloway’s Alfred P. Doolittle could carry the show on his own.

But the tour de force here is the music, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s finest production. My Fair Lady has a dozen songs, and there isn’t a throwaway in the bunch. There’s barely a throwaway line. The wordplay is a modern-day marvel.

We get Holloway’s music hall marches, soaring ballads like “On the Street Where You Live” and Harrison’s spoken singing, which clearly was a major building block of rap.

You leave humming the whole show.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Some of the greatest entertainment of the 20th century only played to half the house, because segregation kept way too many black performers only on their side of the tracks.

Stormy Weather gives us a rich, magnificent sampling of what many white folks missed, including the last filmed performance of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and a great duet between Fats Waller and Ada Brown on the irresistible “That Ain’t Right.”

Lena Horne, who had a real character role for a change though the storyline is shaky, sings several lovely ballads. Katherine Dunham’s dance company performs a beautiful ballet when Horne sings the title track.

And that’s not even the highlight. The highlight is the best dance number ever filmed: Fayard and Harold Nicholas (left) segueing into an astonishing tap routine from Cab Calloway’s “Jumpin’ Jive.” A thousand years from now, people will still be asking, “Did they really do that?”

Top Hat (1935)

It’s mandatory to watch a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical. You could make a strong case for Swing Time, but you can’t miss with Top Hat.

Irving Berlin wrote the songs, and “Cheek to Cheek” is one of the pair’s two or three signature dances. Yes, that’s the one with the feather dress that drove Fred crazy.

Footnote: “Isn’t It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)” is even better.

The plot is, uh, predictable, but watching an Astaire/Rogers musical for the plot would be like going to Antarctica for the beaches.

The supporting cast is particularly delightful in Top Hat, including Eric Blore as the marvelous manservant Bates and Erik Rhodes as the wonderful windbag Beddini.

And don’t miss “The Piccolino,” the closing dance that didn’t quite become the new Charleston.  

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Like any list of great musicals could leave Singin’ In the Rain off.

There isn’t a single move in Gene Kelly’s title dance that you don’t savor. The slow build, the whirl in the street, the curl around the lamppost. There isn’t a false move, either, right down to the moment he hands the umbrella off. His work is done.

Yes, Singin’ in the Rain is another movie about Hollywood, except Hollywood is the clown on the dunking stool. This is a movie that loves goofy, and it’s rarely been done better than Donald O’Connor does it in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” (right)

While Debbie Reynolds wasn’t a dancer, she, Kelly and O’Connor form a perfect triangle in a film that revels in both parts of the term musical comedy.

Holiday Inn (1942)

No law says you can only watch this in December because Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas.” 

It wasn’t made as a Christmas film. It was released in August because every major holiday gets a song.

Some get a dance, too. Fred Astaire’s Fourth of July firecracker dance is something you’d never see anyone else do. Which is probably just as well.

Come to think of it no one else would be likely to do his drunken New Year’s Eve dance, either.

Add “Easter Parade,” and you’ve got a musical holiday feast.

And in conclusion, it should be noted that this list is entirely negotiable, which is fine because these days you can watch almost any great musical you want. And when you have, sure, then go ahead and watch La La Land again.

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Scott M
Yes! Exactly!! I'm one of those dark-souled individuals (apparently) that thought LLL was just okay. (Loved that you mentioned the SNL skit!) Not quite sure why Hollywood falls all over itself for mediocre works like this (and The Artist)...
Feb 26, 2017   |  Reply
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