Film Frame Friday is a regular series where one of our contributors will pick a film and highlight its unique cinematic style, from cinematography to mise-en-scene, and editing. It is a great way to not only introduce someone to a new film but to bring new conversations to the table. Click here for more entries in the series.
As many of you know, First Man had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim, but two years prior director Damien Chazelle was taking Hollywood by storm with his Jacques Demy-inspired hit La La Land. It is not hard to understand why La La Land was a big hit. The main leads are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Add on to the fact that this is a dramatic romance with heavy musical numbers, and you got a stand out hit. The visuals are stunning, and the music will stick with you long after watching the film.
Now let’s get to the point: yes, La La Land is inspired by earlier musicals, but the main inspiration that always stuck out to me like a sore thumb is the work of Demy. I am not just talking about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg either. Most people will mention Singin’ in the Rain as another influence, but I don’t think you need to look so far.
I perfectly believe Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort inspired not only the musical numbers of La La Land but the optimistic attitude featured in the first half of the film.
Making the Connection through Parallels
Warning: Spoilers for La La Land and The Young Girls of Rochefort endings.
To understand the comparisons of these films, and how these visuals, musical dance numbers, and even emotional beats are connected, you first have to travel back to the 1960s. Demy decided to change the game by releasing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964. A musical romantic drama starring two attractive leads wasn’t unique, but what set it apart was how all the dialogue was sung like an Opera performance. The contrast of lush colorful visuals against the tragic plot of the film was something to take note of. Like Chazelle’s La La Land, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg put Demy on the worldwide map as a director.
If The Umbrellas of Cherbourg serves as a parallel of not only success for the directors, but actual story elements, how do you explain the well-crafted musical numbers? Easy, with Young Girls of Rochefort. Released in 1967, The Young Girls of Rochefort took a different approach from Umbrellas by sticking to an upbeat story, with more by-the-book musical numbers and erratic dance performances.
Think back to the opening number of La La Land. The opening sequence is a large set piece, with an ensemble that not only sets the tone for the film but introduces us to our main characters.
Seems pretty by the books for any musical to kick off with an opening number, right? Not quite the case, for you see this is where the first homage to Demy comes into play. The Young Girls of Rochefort also features an opening number involving the cast jumping out of vehicles to perform a dance number.
Notice how both openings introduce the main theme of each film?
The homage becomes even more apparent when you look at both scenes in full.
Now comes something I failed to catch the first time I watched La La Land. Do you remember when Emma Stone’s character finally gets out of that traffic in the opening number and later returns to her apartment?
I noticed the beginning of “Someone In The Crowd” is actually an intended or unintended reference to “A Pair of Twins” from The Young Girls of Rochefort.
Both songs not only take place at the beginning of each respective film, within their homes, but the bigger theme is the women in both films hoping to find the one. Who is the one? Well, the one is that special man they’ve dreamed of. Both musical numbers serve a hopeful romanticism by women who believe their Prince Charming or special someone is out there in the crowd.
Yes, even “City of Stars” is just an homage to the optimistic and romanticism of earlier musicals; for example, compare “City of Stars” here to “Maxence’s Song” from Young Girls of Rochefort.
Both songs might have a sadder theme, but each of them are actually optimistic. The men have been down on their luck, but they know there is still a chance for happiness.
When people think of what inspired La La Land, everyone is quick to jump to Umbrellas, but I think Rochefort deserves just as much praise. La La Land relies on a large number of musical performances, dances, and downright charming enthusiasm from its characters that is not apparent in Umbrellas. What makes Chazelle’s film unique is how he perfectly blends Umbrellas and Rochefort into one film, with his own touch. What do I mean?
Take a look at this clip from the ending of La La Land. This scene represents a “what could have been” between two lovers, had they made different decisions or chosen to make things work between them. Many people see the ending of Umbrellas in the ending of La La Land, and they are right, but Demy fans will be able to see that it also pays homage to one of the ending scenes of Young Girls.
Sometimes as viewers we see a clear connection and latch onto to it, but upon rewatches, we pick up on the subtle details. We start making connections that we didn’t think possible and start to realize the sheer talent and genius of our favorite directors. Chazelle breathed new life into the classic musical genre Demy championed, and by doing so launched himself into orbit as a director to follow.