For longtime fans of director Damien Chazelle, the tremendously talented young filmmaker behind Whiplash and this week’s La La Land, there is a special nod to the director’s career up to this point in his new Oscar-bound musical. As Emma Stone’s wild dreamer wanders around the Warner Bros. lot, where her character works, two lot workers push a big marquee banner for a movie called Guy & Madeline, which looks like a It Happened One Night-type romantic comedy. It’s actually a reference to Chazelle’s wondrous musical debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which may still be his best film and is, in its way, a conflation of classical musical comedies with more modern, jazzy influences like John Cassavettes’ Shadows.
Where so many can hardly look past the musical eras of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, the musical genre itself has constantly been renewing itself in a variety of ways. Shadows is more of a music movie than a musical, a differentiation that has caused more than a few arguments in my circle of friends and fellow cinephiles, but the music movie clearly came from the musical genre. And while vibrant, colorful, and romantic works like Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, and Footlight Parade continue to astound, modern incarnations have ventured into stranger, sublime terrain as the perfect landscape for some wildly ambitious directors. Plenty seem to have taken to middling outings like Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl and, of course, Pitch Perfect, as well as Broadway adaptations like Into the Woods or Tom Hooper’s inexcusable Les Miserables.
More rewarding are films like Johnnie To’s extravagant Office and Jacob Krupnick’s elusive Girl Walk//All Day, which don’t simply try to reimagine the days of Astaire and Kelly in a modern setting but infuse the genre with personal political ideas and formal daring. Still, there’s no fair weighing the substance or quality of something like Office or Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You against classics like The Band Wagon or Meet Me in St. Louis. All of these movies have a place in the history of how the musical genre ended up here with La La Land looking all too likely to grab the Oscar for Best Film in 2017, and here are 10 that you should make an especial effort to see before you hit the theater to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone romance each other.