When it comes to movie musicals, there’s a reason Hollywood doesn’t make them like they used to.
“La La Land,” a throwback to a time when bursting out in song was a familiar sight on the big screen, is beating the odds and seems poised to play to big audiences. If it succeeds, it will be one of the most radical movie hits of the aughts.
The Lionsgate production, one of the only original musicals produced by a major studio in the last two or three decades, is breaking records in limited release. This weekend it earned $855,000 from five theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The film’s per-location average of $171,000 is the second best ever for a specialty film. “La La Land” will expand to 200 theaters next weekend and should be in most major markets by Christmas.
“This opening sets this movie on the right path,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “It looks like it’s going to have a perfect storm of box office success and critical acclaim.”
The film hits at a time of bruised feelings. Public opinion polling shows historically low approval for President-elect Donald Trump, with post-election evaluations among the most negative of any White House race dating back to 1988. In this atmosphere of post-election malaise, “La La Land,” an ebullient, big-hearted romance, seems like an antidote. It’s a valentine to the musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, with a warmth and optimism that could sweep away any lingering bad feelings after a bruising campaign.
“It’s a movie that you walk in the theater and you just feel great,” said David Spitz, Lionsgate’s head of distribution. “It makes you feel terrific and that’s a good thing right now.”
“La La Land” is a mainstay of many critic’s year-end best lists and it’s been earning raves since playing film festivals like Toronto and Telluride last fall. No less a fan than Tom Hanks took a break from hawking his film “Sully” to say that “if the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as [‘La La Land’] then we are all doomed.”
“La La Land” seems destined to rack up impressive grosses, but it was always a dicey proposition. The singing and dancing genre used to be a staple of the movie business. It made the careers of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, and Judy Garland. Ever since the Woodstock era, however, musicals have faced an uncertain box office reception.
There have been a few films that have found popular approval, among them “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” but it’s an intimate group of success stories. More recent releases such as “Les Miserables” and “Chicago” have scored with audiences, but they’ve been helped in part by Oscar love. They had another point working on their behalf: those movies were adapted from widely known stage shows.
The track record of other movie musicals is a mixed bag. “Moulin Rouge!” was moderately successful despite lacking Broadway pedigree, but it boasted a jukebox soundtrack of music from Elton John, Madonna, the Police, and other pop singers. Other original musicals, such as James L. Brooks’ “I’ll Do Anything” or the Cher and Christina Aguilera dance-off, “Burlesque,” were not so fortunate, and bombed badly.
“There’s a reason why a lot of studios didn’t bite on this,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They took a risk and it looks like it’s going to pay off.”
For Lionsgate, “La La Land” presented a great opportunity to work with Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind behind “Whiplash.” The studio’s motion picture group president Erik Feig met the director at Sundance, where “Whiplash” had just premiered, and began thinking of ways they could collaborate. Chazelle had been toying with the idea of making a movie like “La La Land” since college. He hoped to put a modern spin on classic musicals such as “The Band Wagon” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
“We believed in him and his vision as a filmmaker,” said Spitz.
Still “La La Land” was a leap of faith. Its soundtrack is comprised entirely of new music. The picture’s melancholy ballads such as “City of Stars” and up-tempo numbers like “Someone in the Crowd” are the work of composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They aren’t widely known songwriters, and “La La Land” had no top-40 hits or hit makers to fall back on.
Despite that, Spitz believes the film is benefiting from great reviews and some old-school movie star glamor. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have previously partnered on “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Gangster Squad,” and they have the kind of chemistry that’s hard to capture on film. They also are helping the film play to a broader audience than moviegoers reared on the work of Fred and Ginger. In limited release, “La La Land” drew crowds of younger women and men,” the Lionsgate executive said.
“This movie is playing literally to everyone,” said Spitz. “It’s just a matter of people discovering the movie. It’s going to play and play.”