As you may well know by now, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is filled with movie references and most importantly, classic musical references, which is basically one of the reasons the film has been critically acclaimed. In fact, it takes a cinephile to compile such amazing yet eclectic musicals from both Hollywood and France, and turn it into a modern tribute to movie magic. But what movies are referenced? In this article my aim is to not only list them but give a brief synopsis about each of them, and as a musical enthusiast add my unsolicited opinion and some interesting trivia.
A few weeks ago, a video made by Sara Preciado in which she matches scenes from La La Land with other musical that inspired the movie became viral, with more than 600k visits on Vimeo alone.
Les demoiselles de Rochefort – Jacques Demy, 1967
Referenced musical number: “Le pont transbordeur”
Taking place over the course of a week, the movie tells the story of 25-year-old twin sisters Delphine and Solange. Delphine teaches ballet whereas Solange gives music lessons, while dreaming of finding true love and leaving their small seaside town. When the fair arrives in Rochefort, the twins meet two carnies, Étienne and Bill, a moment that will change their lives. With an impressive production design and color palette, the film is a tribute to Hollywood’s optimism and dreamlike atmosphere.
A critical and box office success, Les demoiselles de Rochefort is very reminiscent of Demy’s previous film Les parapluies de Cherbourg. Personally one of my favorite musicals (though it’s not as great as Les parapluies de Cherbourg), Demy captures the surreal atmosphere of classic Hollywood musicals and combines it with a real setting.
- Delphine and Solange were played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac (who passed away shortly after the release of the film).
- Most of the actors, including Gene Kelly, were dubbed. The only performer who actually sings is Danielle Darrieux.
- The film was shot simultaneously in French and English.
- Les demoiselles de Rochefort is seen as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
- The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score but lost to Oliver!
Grease – Randal Kleiser, 1978
Referenced musical number: “Look At Me I’m Sandra Dee”
Over the summer of 1958, good girl Sandy and local greaser Danny fall in love. When the summer ends, they both discover they are now in the same high school, after Sandy moves from Australia, but their social differences may be stronger than the love they feel for each other.
Who does not love Grease? A classic musical, it features some of both Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta’s most iconic roles. “Summer Nights”, “Greased Lightnin”, “You’re the One that I Want” and “We Go Together” and just some of the songs that are still wildly popular nowadays. I am a fan of both the movie and stage versions. And don’t let me get started with the soundtrack! But let’s be clear, Grease 2 should have never happened. If you haven’t watched it, I also recommend the Fox television special Grease: Live, a live televised adaptation of the musical starring Julianne Hough, Arron Tveit and Vanessa Hudgens.
- Grease was the highest-grossing movie of 1978 and has raised almost $400 million to date.
- “Hopelessly Devoted to You” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, but lost to “You Light Up My Life”.
- Sandy’s character had to be changed in order to fit Australian Olivia Newton-John, who was not able to speak in a convincing American accent (in the original stage version Sandy is American).
- The movie was re-released in 1998, to mark its 20th
- Elvis was offered the role of the Guardian Angel, but turned it down. He died on the day “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee” was shot.
West Side Story – Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961
Based on Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet, West Side Story, tells the story of the impossible romance between María and Tony, members of two rival gangs of New York’s West Side. Winner of 10 Academy Awards, the film holds the record for the most wins for a movie musical to date.
It may look like I love every musical, but honestly West Side Story is one of my favorite. Leonard Bernstein’s soundtrack may well be one of the best scores ever written. Everything from Leonard Bernstein’s iconic soundtrack to the cinematography and production design is perfect. And let’s not forget its deep social meaning, since the movie depicts the racism and discrimination Puerto Ricans were subjected to in America. A movie that has stood the test of time.
- The movie won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Score.
- Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn turned down the role of Tony and María.
- Natalie Wood’s musical scenes were dubbed by Marni Nixon. Wood’s voice can only be heard during the reprise of the song “Somewhere”. Nixon also dubbed Rita Moreno in “A Boy Like That”, although Moreno sang her own vocals in the iconic musical number “America”. George Chakiris was the only one out of the main actors not to be dubbed.
- Shooting lasted for six months.
- The movie is visually inspired by several modern American painters such as Ben Shan and Robert Vickrey.
Sweet Charity – Bob Fosse, 1969
Referenced musical number: “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”
Based on the 1966 stage musical of the same name, Sweet Charity tells the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer who longs for love but has generally bad luck with men.
Making only $8 million at the box office, Sweet Charity is a lesser known musical. I personally only learnt about its existence in October 2015, so I understand that unless you are a true musical enthusiast you may not be too familiar with it. Storywise, it’s not the best movie, it looks very 1960’s comedy (like Cactus Flower, minus the wit), but the musical numbers are incredible, just like you’d expect from something directed and choreographed by the incredible Bob Fosse. My personal favorite number is “Somebody Loves Me/I’m a Brass Band”, which you can find HERE
- The movie received three Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design and Best Score.
- The number “There’s Gotta Be Someone Better Than This” became the inspiration for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” routine.
- Costumes were made by legendary costume designer Edith Head.
- The stage version of the film is inspired by Federico Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria).
- “I’m a Brass Band” is one of the longest musical numbers in history.
Singin’ in the Rain – Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952
The most iconic musical of all time, ranked #1 in the America Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals, is La La Land’s most noticeable reference. Singin’ in the Rain offers a depiction of 1920’s Hollywood transition from silent movies to talkies. Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a famous silent film star who will need the help of his best friend Cosmo and aspiring actress Kathy Selden to save his career.
Not only are some musical numbers (as well as ordinary scenes not listed here) clear references to Kelly’s movie, the plot itself has clear parallels. Sebastian considers himself a “serious musician”, just like Kathy considers herself a “serious actress”, which is the main reason the main characters hate each other at the beginning of each story. And of course, the most obvious similitude, both musicals are movies about movies, about succeeding in Hollywood.
Singin’ in the Rain is my all-time favorite musical, everything about it is incredible, so if by any chance you haven’t seen it (HOW??!!), watch it, RIGHT NOW (maybe after you finish reading this article).
- Filming the famous dance sequence took 2-3 days, during which Kelly was sick with a 103 ºF/39 ºC fever.
- Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience before this movie, and some of her signing had to be dubbed.
- The script was written after the songs.
- Most of the costumes used in the film were later acquired by Debbie Reynolds.
- The movie is ranked #5 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies and #1 in Greatest Musicals.
Shall We Dance – Mark Sandrich, 1937
Referenced musical number: “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”
Fred Astaire plays ballet dancer Peter P. “Petrov” Peters who falls in love with tap dancer Linda Keene. Despite her not being impressed by him, unknown to them a publicity stunt is launched claiming that the two are actually married.
Shall We Dance is the seventh of the ten Astaire-Rogers films and features, as always, impeccable dance numbers by the two leading stars. The score by George Gershwin blends jazz with classical music, a style that Gene Kelly would later make popular in movies like Singin’ in the Rain. Far from being my favorite musical, Shall We Dance was neither a box office nor a critical success, but it is a highly enjoyable film for any Astaire-Rogers fan.
- The scene “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” reportedly took about 150 to complete.
- George and Ira Gershwin, were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song for “They Can’t Take that Away from Me”. It was a posthumous nomination for George, who had died two months after the release of the movie.
- The title was suggested by Vincente Minnelli. The working titles were Watch Your Step and Stepping Toes.
- “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is ranked #34 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.
- Production required 300 hours of rehearsals.
The Band Wagon – Vincente Minnelli 1953
Referenced musical number: “Dancing in the Dark”
Veteran star Tony Hunter is given a part in a musical comedy believed to be perfect for his comeback. But when Tony signs up for the part, the director Jeffrey Cordova turns it into an adaptation of Faust and casts sought-after ballerina Gabrielle “Gaby” Gerard. Production bombs due to tension between the two leading actors who, unbeknown to them, are afraid of each other. After the first out-of-town tryout turns to be a disaster, Tony and Gaby need to salvage the troubled production.
Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse once again light up the screen with great dance numbers. With a pretty flat screenplay, it is definitely not my favorite musical, but even Astaire’s worst films are still great (I mean, it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
- The working titles of the film were originally I Love Louisa and Strategy of Love.
- Cyd Charisse’ singing was dubbed by India Adams.
- The characters are based on real people: Astaire’s character was based on the actor himself, it is suggested that Cordova was inspired by José Ferrer and writers Lester and Lily Marton were based on the actual screenwriters of the film, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
- Most of the songs were written for the 1931 revue of the same name, although the hit song “That’s Entertainment” was written especially for the movie.
- The film received three Academy Award nominations for Best Screenplay, Costume Design and Score.
Moulin Rouge! – Baz Luhrmann, 2001
Referenced musical number: “Your Song”
Baz Luhrmann’s pastiche jukebox musical is considered one of the best musicals of the 21st Century. Set in 1900 Paris, the movie follows the story of Christian, a young bohemian writer who falls in love with the star of Moulin Rouge, Santine. Their love affair will be threatened by the rich Duke of Monroth.
A love-it-or-hate-it experience, Moulin Rouge! can either be an all time favorite or a confusing vertiginous film (in my case it’s the former). The movie takes popular 1980s and 90s songs and mixes them with turn-of-the-century settings, thus showing modern audiences the thrill and excitement the real audience felt back in the day. The visual style is close to music videos, with noticeable camera movements, fast cutting, opulent locations and loud music.
- The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Actress. It eventually won two for Art Direction and Costume Design. Baz Luhrmann was snubbed for Best Director.
- Moulin Rouge! was inspired by the Greek tragedy Orpheus and Eurydice, The Lady of the Camellias, La Traviata and La Boheme, among others.
- “Come What May”, the only original song in the film, was actually written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet but was never used.
- Many of the images contained in the film were inspired by Toulouse-Lauutrec’s paintings.
- The movie was mostly shot at Fox Studios in Sydney, with some pick-up shots shot in Madrid, but there was no location shooting at all.
Sleeping Beauty – Clyde Geronimi (supervising director), 1959
Referenced musical number: “Finale” (“Once Upon a Dream”)
Based on The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault and The Little Briar Rose by The Bothers Grimm, the classic animated Disney adaptation tells the story of Princess Aurora, the only daughter of King Stefan and Queen Leah who is cursed by the evil fairy Maleficient after not being invited to her christening: on her 16th birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of an enchanted spinning wheel and die. By her fairy god mothers find a way to break the curse: she will not die but instead fall asleep until she is kissed by a brave prince.
I don’t know anyone who’ve never seen this movie as a child or never read the book. I used to love Disney’s fairytales and with time I’ve also come to appreciate its exquisite visual style (without 3D, computer animation or anything of the sort). It may not be the ideal movie to watch on a Saturday evening but if you have kids or just want to have a Disney nostalgia evening it is the perfect movie.
- The movie’s musical score was adapted from the 1890 Sleeping Beauty Ballet by Tchaikovsky.
- Sleeping Beauty took 8 years to make (from 1951 to 1959).
- Prince Philip was the first Disney prince to have a name.
- Due to its box office underperformance, the movie was the last fairytale produced by the studio until The Little Mermaid, thirty years later.
- Sleeping Beauty only appears in the film for eighteen minutes.
Funny Face – Stanley Donen, 1957
Referenced scene: Photo shoot (min. 1:24).
Dick Avery, a famous fashion photographer, and Maggie Prescot, a fashion magazine publisher and editor, are looking for a model to start a new trend that combines both beauty and intelligence. They eventually find the perfect choice when they stumble upon a bookstore in Greenwich Village where he meets the young and shy clerk Jo, who believes the fashion industry is nonsense. Despite this attitude, Avery considers that she meets all the requirements he was looking for and decides to turn her into the best American model in Paris.
Again, not my favorite musical, I frankly believe that despite the fact that Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn star in it, the stereotypes shown in the film do not achieve the level of satire expected (if that is a thing): it is not a good parody, it is just a bunch of stereotypes about the fashion industry, intellectuals, Parisians and so on. But that’s just my point of view. It is always a pleasure to see Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn so if you’re a fan of either of them, watch it (not their best work but still enjoyable).
- The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration and Costume Design.
- Fred Astaire’s character was based on the famous photographer Richard Avedon.
- Hepburn sings the songs herself.
- Astaire starred in a 1927 Broadway show of the same name with his sister Adele, though the plot is entirely different and only four songs from the satge musical are used in the film.
An American in Paris – Vincente Minnelli, 1951
Referenced musical number: “An American In Paris Ballet”
After WWII, Jerry Mulligan, war veteran turned into an exuberant painter stays in Paris displaying his paintings in the streets of Montparnasse. He is spotted by a rich heiress, Milo Roberts, who becomes interested in him, while he falls in love with a French girl, who unbeknown to him is already engaged to one of his friends.
Considered one of the best movies ever made, people either love it or hate it: with long oneiric sequences, spectacular production design, incredible music and brilliant acting and dancing, it is unquestionably one of my favorite films. It simply makes you want to leave everything and move to Paris which is not such a bad idea if you’re a bohemian like Gene Kelly’s character. But beware, if you don’t like long dance sequences, this movie is not for you, considering the climax of the film is a (superb) 17-minute ballet sequence.
- The film received eight Oscar nominations, winning six, among which Best Picture.
- The ballet sequence alone cost about half a million dollars to make.
- No words are spoken during the last 20 minutes of the film.
- Leslie Caron, the leading actress, barely spoke any English when she landed this role.
- Gene Kelly’s favorite film.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg – Jacques Demy, 1964
Referenced musical number: “Ne me quitte pas”
Mrs. Emery and her daughter Geneviève own an umbrella store in Cherbourg. Geneviève is in love with Guy, a mechanic, who soon after has to leave to become a soldier in the Algerian War. Alone and pregnant, Geneviève eventually marries a wealthy jeweler, Roland.
A box office and critical success, Les parapluies de Cherbourg is (yet again) one of my favorite musicals: Demy manages to mix the surrealism of classic Hollywood musicals (the dialogue is all sung, the setting, although being shot on location, is painted to make it took like a studio, etc) with the real social, economic and political context. Chazelle’s tribute to Demy’s film goes further than the basic visual reference. The structure, marked by seasons, is present in both films, but most importantly, the concept of both films is the same: the musical in a real-life setting, which real (or realistic characters) who try to follow the ideal musical love story, but that in the end fail to find the perfect movie ending, because life is not perfect, life is not a musical.
- According to IMDB, this is Damien Chazelle’s favorite film.
- Demy drew inspiration from Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Max Ophüls and notably from Hollywood musicals, among which Singin’ in the Rain.
- Won the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.
- Demy built the film like a modern opera, with three acts and sung dialogue.
- Launched Catherine Deneuve’s career.
On the Town – Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1949
Referenced musical number: The entire movie but notably “New York, New York”
Based on a 1944 stage musical of the same name, On the Town tells the story of three sailors who begin a 24-hour shore leave in New York, during which they all find love.
A pretty simple story but a great MGM movie, On the Town is the sort of musical that leaves you dancing and singing for a good hour after watching it (well, at least it worked for me). The singing and dancing are great, as always when it comes to Kelly and Donen, with some legendary numbers such as “New York New York”. Maybe not a musical for those who don’t really like classic musicals in which anything is possible and everything can be easily solved, but a must-see for anyone who enjoys musicals (and New York).
- This was the first time a major studio (in this case MGM) shot musical numbers on location (in New York).
- Frank Sinatra’s popularity made shooting in New York extremely difficult as he was easily recognized.
- Only three numbers from the original stage musicals were used in the film: “New York, New York”, “Come up to my Place”, “Miss Turnstiles” and “A Day in New York”.
- Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra had previously worked together in Anchors Aweigh, in which they also played sailors.
- Won the Oscar for Best Score.
Broadway Melody of 1940 – Norman Taurog, 1940
Referenced musical number: “Begin the Beguine”
Johnny and King are a dance team that makes almost no money working in a dance hall until producer Bob Casey discovers Johnny and wants him to star in a Broadway show along the famous actress Clare Bennet. But in a case of mistaken identity, it is King who gets the part.
Yet another glittery MGM showbiz musical, and probably one you could afford to miss if it wasn’t for the extraordinary pairing of Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire, who had recently left RKO.
- Fred Astaire was reportedly intimidated by Eleanor Powell, whom he thought was the only dancer who could out-perform him.
- The fourth and final film of a series called “The Broadway Melody”.
- The film was planned to be shot in Technicolor but was eventually made in black and white.
- Based on a story by Jack McGowan and Dore Schary.
- The number “Begin the Beguine” cost $120,000 to make.
Other obvious non-musical references: It would be a shame not to briefly mention other non-musical references used in La La Land:
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), and notably Ingrid Bergman, is a recurring theme: Mia has a massive Ingrid Bergman poster in her room (which is basically my dream), she shows Sebastian the balcony at the Warner Brothers’ lot where Casablanca was shot and in the last part of the film, a poster with Ingrid Bergman’s picture is shown outside Chateau Marmont, the hotel in which Mia and her family stay. But, most importantly, both films have the same message of the lovers that can’t be together but will love each other forever. It may be a cliché, but I like it.
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) is another obvious reference, since Mia and Sebastian go to the movies to watch it, a clear sign of Old Hollywood nostalgia, and end up at the Griffith Observatory, where part of James Dean’s film was shot.
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and Le ballon rouge (Albert Lamorisse, 1956): both are referenced in music numbers. The former in the swimming pool shot of “Someone in the Crowd”, while the latter is clearly alluded in the epilogue, with the boy holding a red balloon. If you haven’t seen Le ballon rouge (the Red Balloon) it is a delightful French fantasy-comedy/drama short film that follows the story of a young boy who finds a magic balloon. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, you can currently find it on Youtube.
What are your favorite musicals? What references did we miss? You can leave it on the comments below!