Musical Tributes

Two colorful widescreen musicals at the Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre helped take the chill off of the cold new year for many area moviegoers.

The combined experience of seeing these two movies also gave me more insight into the history and significance of the classic movie musicals that were released from the late 1920s to the 1960s.

The new musical La La Land, which I saw at the Michigan on January 5, 2016, paid tribute to several famous musicals. The next night, on January 6, the Redford remembered the recently passed Debbie Reynolds with the screening of the 1964 movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

La La Land (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

La La Land (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

La La Land arrived at the Michigan on Christmas Eve on a very large wave of hype and praise. That always creates a burden of high expectations, and a real chance for a letdown.

But La La Land met those expectations, with a dazzling series of scenes. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were the billed stars, but they shared much screen time with movie-soaked images of Los Angeles and a very palpable love for movie musicals.

The audience at the Michigan enjoyed transcendent evocations of scenes from such famous musicals as An American in Paris, West Side Story, and—most of all—Singin’ in the Rain. Like those great movies, La La Land knew how to slip out of its own reality into a heightened sense of wonder.

Singin’ in the Rain starred a very young Debbie Reynolds as a young actress who, like Gosling and Stone in La La Land, was trying to establish both an identity and a career.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Debbie Reynolds)

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Debbie Reynolds)

When Reynolds died on December 28, 2016, the Redford made plans for a tribute movie, like they did in the past year for David Bowie, Prince, and Gene Wilder.

Singin’ in the Rain would have been a natural choice, but the Redford chose Reynolds’ flamboyant Oscar-nominated performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

That turned out to be an excellent choice because it showed off the many sides of Reynolds’ talents and beauty.

Reynolds’ vibrancy filled the Redford auditorium, with the audience breaking into applause several times. Molly Brown showcased the spunkiness of Reynolds that she also displayed in Singin’ in the Rain.

Molly Brown was part of a double tribute to Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, who died on December 27, 2016. Fisher co-starred in the second movie of the evening, When Harry met Sally.

La La Land‘s power came in part from its recreation of a movie musical style that disappeared years ago. The Unsinkable Molly Brown was released just as that era was winding down. According to film historian David Shipman (in The Story of Cinema), it was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s last big musical in a decades-long stretch of creativity that began when pictures started talking in the late 1920s.

That’s the paradox of nostalgia—old styles of entertainment have to be replaced by new styles before those old styles can be fully appreciated.

But the past is most valuable as a foundation for the present and future. These early January screenings of La La Land and The Unsinkable Molly Brown used the past to enhance the present and help its viewers move forward into a new year.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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