“La La Land”, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s widely critically and popularly acclaimed original movie musical currently basking in the glow of 14 Academy Award nominations, is a love letter to romance gained and lost, to Los Angeles and its tribe of dreamers, and above all to a rich history of movie musicals.
Much has already been said about “La La Land’s” evocation of classic musical films, with the Gene Kelly masterpieces “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” as well as Jacques Demy’s ravishing “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” getting the most mentions. But many many more classic movie musicals find themselves lovingly alluded to in cinematic references large and small – most I would assume threaded in deliberately by Chazelle and his collaborators, although some allusions may have possibly been unconscious, so much is the history of movie musicals baked into “La La Land” – some day soon I am sure a whole book will be published discussing them all (for now there are dozens of articles, for example this video essay comparing “La La Land” to Scorcese’s “New York New York”). Today I would like to look at “La La Land’s” nods to one particular classic movie musical: “Cabaret”. The allusions there may be more subtle than to the other films mentioned above, but they are still clear.
“Cabaret”, Bob Fosse’s cinematic adaptation of the stage hit about hedonism and prejudice in pre-Nazi Germany, rewrote movie musical rules, won 8 Oscars, and made a huge impression on me as a kid (it still ranks as one of my all time favorite movies). In story it and “La La Land” have little in common, except that both feature a lead female trying to break into show business (not unusual at all in musicals) and tells the story of a love affair (also very common in musicals) that comes to a bittersweet end (more unusual).
The nod to “Cabaret” comes out most strongly in the pivotal “Audition” scene. Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress disillusioned by too many rejections but back for one more audition that may turn around her career, is asked by the casting director not to act a monologue or read a scene, but to improvisationally tell a story. This storytelling becomes the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” Mia chooses to tell about her bohemian aunt, whose wild, adventurous ways inspire the lyrics in the chorus that might as well stand as a credo for Mia, her boyfriend Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and “La La Land” itself:
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – Emma Stone
This song has a crucial relationship to the song “Cabaret”, which Liza Minnelli sings at the end of the eponymous movie, and which also embodies the singer’s (and by extension movie’s) credo in the chorus (“Life is a cabaret, old chum! So come to the cabaret!”).
Cabaret – Liza Minnelli
Both songs illustrate their point of view by using their verses to tell of a colorful female character whose unconventional, daring lives inspired the singer. It the case of “Cabaret” it is Sally’s girlfriend Elsie (with whom she shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea). Mia’s aunt and Sally’s girlfriend are the ones who inspired them as well as their song’s points of view.
The clue that this relationship between the two songs is fully intentional is the word “liquor” and how it relates to both the aunt’s and the girlfriend’s demise:
The day she died the neighbors came to snicker:
“Well, that is what comes from too much pills and liquor.”
But when I saw her laid out like a queen
She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen
She lived in her liquor
And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame
Composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Noble Brown must have included that “liquor” reference as a knowing nod to “Cabaret”.
Another way the “Audition” scene nods to the movie “Cabaret” is the way Damien Chazelle films the scene. The camera first is placed behind the casting director’s table looking at Mia’s directly full figure. Then, in one long take (the cinematographer is Linus Sandgren), the camera slowly and fluidly moves towards Mia, her face taking up more and more of the screen, until the camera starts moving to Mia’s right profile, circling behind her head, passing by her left profile before slowly backing up again to return to the casting director’s point of view. This long arc around Mia echoes a similar approach Bob Fosse took filming Liza Minelli as Sally singing “Maybe This Time”. Even though “Maybe This Time” isn’t filmed in one take, at a crucial build it includes an fluid shot arcing behind Sally from her right to left profile which feels echoed in “Audition”, especially because at that moment the drab audition room has disappeared and Mia appears to be singing in a black void with blinding spotlights, just like Sally. This arcing shot (Minute 1:56 – 2:27 in the video below) is then followed by a view of Sally’s full figure seen from the front in the center of the screen, like Mia at the beginning and end of “Audition”.
One more clue of Chazelle and company’s intention to allude to “Cabaret” in the Audition scene comes at the end of “La La Land”, where an extended dream sequence reimagines and idealizes Mia and Sebastian’s relationship and history as a cinematic dance, just like the famous dream ballet that concludes “An American in Paris” did for its romantic leads.
La La Land’s Dream Ballet includes this moment staged as a silhouette play:
Which reminds me of the decadent silhouette plays briefly glimpsed being presented in “Cabaret’s” Kit Kat Club:
Now, the connection between these depictions of shadow plays in both movies might seem tangential if not for the fact that Chazelle chooses to use the shadow play technique in his dream sequence solely for the reimagining of the “Audition” scene. I don’t think it is a coincidence that a subtle but clear reference to “Cabaret” is made when “La La Land” hearkens back to its one crucial scene that partly plays like a homage to two of the most famous musical numbers in “Cabaret”.