These iconic movie musicals paved the way for La La Land's fancy footwork to dance into audiences' hearts

By Julia Emmanuele
February 23, 2017 05:12 PM
Products in this story are independently selected and featured editorially. If you make a purchase using these links we may earn commission.
Credit: Lionsgate

From its opening, traffic-stopping number to its romantic ending, La La Land is a love letter to the city of Los Angeles — as well as to the classic movie musicals of the ’40s and ’50s.

In his six-year quest to get the film — which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations — made, director Damien Chazelle called upon those original MGM song and dance numbers for inspiration.

Some of the film’s homages are more overt — for example, there’s a scene in which Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) have a date at the Griffith Observatory after attempting to watch the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause on their first date — but even in its subtler moments, Chazelle’s love of Old Hollywood is clear throughout.

Luckily film buffs can catch up on the movies that paved the way for La La Land‘s fancy footwork …

The film to which La La Land has been compared most often is, of course, the iconic 1952 Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds film, which Chazelle has often cited as an influence. In fact, Gosling revealed at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January that the cast watched Singin’ In the Rain on set for inspiration. “I wish I could’ve said this in person, but I’d like to thank Debbie Reynolds for her wonderful career of work. She was an inspiration to us every day,” Gosling said, while accepting the Festival’s Vanguard Award. “We watched Singin’ in the Rain every day for inspiration, and she was a truly unparalleled talent. So I thank her for all of that inspiration.”

And that inspiration can be spotted throughout the film, from the vivid reds and yellows used as a color scheme to the dream ballet at the very end of the film, but eagle-eyed viewers will catch Singin’ In the Rain references sprinkled into the film’s choreography. (Hello, Gosling’s lamppost swing at the start of “A Lovely Night.”)

“They looked like real people moving and having emotions that felt real, and they were telling stories that I think so many of us can relate to,” the film’s choreographer told PEOPLE, revealing she wanted the dancing to be “very colorful and alive” like “the greats”.

“And that dance played a part in that? I was very, very proud,” she continued.

Chazelle also revealed that he had specifically told Stone to watch Reynolds’ star-making performance in the film. “Emma was watching and re-watching a ton of Debbie Reynolds stuff, specifically,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Talk about naturalism. Talk about doing these musicals, or these Old Hollywood movies full of sets and costumes, where it feels like there should be no room for naturalism at all, and yet you watch Singin’ In the Rain, you feel like you know her.”

In addition to inspiring Stone and Gosling’s performances, Singin’ In the Rain inspired the film’s famous “dream ballet” ending, along with another iconic Old Hollywood musical: An American in Paris.

“I knew that I wanted to tell a love story where the lovers didn’t wind up together at the end, where there was some kind of melancholy built into the narrative,” Chazelle told PEOPLE about the heartbreaking epilogue, which tells an alternate version of Mia and Sebastian’s love story. “And then it became about how do we explore that idea at the end purely through music.”

“So just the idea of having a full 10-minute chunk at the end of the movie with no dialogue where you could tell a whole story through image and score and dance,” he added. “And I was definitely inspired by An American in Paris and any of those ’50s musicals that had those big dream ballets like Singin’ in the Rain. That was just kind of a tradition that you used to see in musicals a lot but you just don’t see at all anymore that I kind of wanted to resurrect.”

During the six years that Chazelle was working on the script for La La Land, the director kept the films of French auteur Nicholas Demy on shuffle for inspiration, but it was Demy’s 1964 masterpiece that most heavily influenced the Best Picture contender. Its influence can be most obviously seen in the film’s style and color palette, and in the way the story of La La Land is broken up into four seasons, just like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Early on the film, Mia is ushered out of her house to a “glamorous” Hollywood party by her roommates in “Someone in the Crowd.” And the way they play dress up around the apartment while trying to convince her to join is all inspired by Maria goofing around in the bridal salon in West Side Story. If you started hearing a few notes of “I Feel Pretty” when Mia tries on that blue dress, well, you’re not alone.

But while the girls’ skirt-swishing night-out choreography might invoke memories of Rita Moreno, the number owes more to Bob Fosse’s 1969 musical Sweet Charity — specifically, the number “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” From the bright, primary colors of Mia and her friend’s costumes to the way the girls dance from one location to another, to, of course, the iconic skirt-focused choreography, it’s hard not to see the ways this number follows in Shirley McLaine and Chita Rivera’s footsteps.

Chazelle has also cited Sweet Charity as an influence for how the camera moves around the party at the end of the number. “The stylized movement of the dancers is very Bob Fosse,” he told Vulture. Sweet Charity has a great party sequence.”

Though Chazelle has cited everything from Rear Window to Falling Down as inspiration for La La Land‘s elaborate opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” (which features people singing and dancing while stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway), the actual logistics of the number was influenced by two musical masterpieces.

“We were looking at Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, which opens with girls not in traffic per se, but on a barge carrying their cars across the river,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “That sort of dance movement in and out of cars and between cars, that was very important to our choreography.”

“And then there was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which used the widescreen for the dance so incredibly. And the athletic choreography. Our opening sequence wasn’t going to be a number like the ones that Ryan and Emma perform later in the movie — this was about busting-at-the-seams exuberance. Even though they’re stuck in traffic, these people are refusing to give up,” he explained.

“They’re refusing to be stuck in life. They’re plowing forward. That’s why we have stuff like a parkour dancer and a BMX biker. I was pulling from the sheer athleticism of the Michael Kidd choreography in Seven Brides, which a lot of times seems like you’re watching the most incredible stunt performers. It bleeds between stunts and dance in a really cool way.”

Once you put all of those influences together — and throw in a good amount of chemistry, courtesy of Stone and Gosling — you’ve got movie magic.

Watch the PEOPLE & EW Red Carpet Live Oscars preshow on Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT on the People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to, or download the app on your favorite device. Then watch our Red Carpet Fashion Wrap-Up after the Oscars!

The Academy Awards kicks off live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 26, with a 7 p.m. ET pre-show and 8:30 p.m. ceremony. See all the Oscar nominees and get your own ballot here!