This is one of those situations when I get SO FRUSTRATED with how everyone is going “WOW! Did you see this?” While I am going “Yes, when I was 5 years old…..Do you, like, never watch anything before 1980?”, and I just CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!!!! So I am going to force you all to learn the basics of American musical/dance history on film, so you can better appreciate how that interacts with modern Indian film, and the occasional very very rare modern American musical.
In the 1920s, there was a dancer called Fred Astaire. He and his sister Adele were child prodigies. They took ballroom and ballet lessons, and then went on the road performing. As siblings, they could dance together, but not really be romantic about it (because that would be weird!), so they mixed in ballroom dancing with more sort of side by side dancing. They also started picking up on the new trends in dance, the tap that was coming out of the African-American community, modern dance from Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker, a whole fusion of stuff.
Adele married a British aristocrat and suddenly Fred was left without a partner. He tried working alone for a while, mostly in small parts in big Broadway reviews, not as the hero, but just as someone who showed up and danced around the heroine for a bit. Eventually, he got a screentest in Hollywood, because everyone was getting screen tests back then. He had a few small parts that proved he could look all right onscreen and the audience would buy him, and then he was given the chance to star in a film version of a show he had been in on Broadway, “The Gay Divorce”. Only, for the film censors, they changed it to “The Gay Divorcee”.
His co-star, Ginger Rogers, was another Broadway person. She had some basic dance abilities, but nowhere near his level. And so in their big dance numbers, he kind of dragged her around the stage, and then would leave her in one place while he danced in front of her, then pick her up again.
The Gay Divorcee was a HUGE HUGE hit. Especially the one big set-piece number, “The Continental”. It was the equivalent of, say, “Kar Gayi Chull”. Everyone bought the sheet music and learned the simple hook step and it swept through the dance clubs and parties of America. And that simple hook step (arms straight out at the side in opposite diagonal directions), is what is imitated in La La Land (as I posted about when the first stills came out).
And so Fred was a star, and Ginger was his heroine. Fred immediately started throwing his power around in the area where he cared the most, his dances. He insisted that they be filmed full body, with minimal cuts or camera changes. Basically, he wanted a stationary camera that just watched him dance. He also insisted on non-synch sound, so he could focus on his movements and dub the taps in later. And he insisted on as many rehearsals and reshoots as necessary until he was satisfied. The exact same things that the Indian choreographers were insisting on on the other side of the world at the same time. Because it’s just common sense if you care about the dance.
The films benefited, and so did Ginger. She went from an okay dancer who he could drag around, to true partner like his sister had been. Look at this number from one of their later films, where you can see how most of the time they are just dancing next to each other, perfectly mimicing steps, with no need for him to guide her.
Fred and Ginger ruled the 1930s. But in the 1940s, the audience was ready for something new. Technicolor had come in, and post-war there was a desire for a darker more manly hero, not just Fred’s suave casual charm.
Enter Gene Kelly! Gene never worked with a partner. He started dancing with his brother as a boy, was teaching dance classes and organizing shows by the time he was a teenager in his hometown, then moved to New York and started working as a choreographer for Broadway shows. Eventually he got the chance to do his own dances, and finally got his big break in Pal Joey, playing a really dark kind of anti-hero. His dances weren’t romantic, they were dangerous.
Thanks to the success of Pal Joey, he got his chance to come out to Hollywood. His first film was opposite Judy Garland, who was of course a huge and incredibly experienced star. He played kind of a dark character onscreen, the audience didn’t really know what to do with him, but Judy sort of helped him along and softened his edges.
Most of Gene’s successful dances in these early years were with himself. Literally with himself, he did a dance with his own reflection in the mirror, another with a cartoon character. He couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually dance with a lady in a way that would work.
Heck, during this period his most common dance partner wasn’t a woman at all, but Frank Sinatra! For some reason the studio kept throwing the two of them together. There was always a love interest in those films as well, but Kelly never really danced with her. He would dance about her (singing a love song to himself), or around her (putting her in one place and making him watch her dance), but there are no real great duet numbers from this era.
This started to change in the 1950s when Kelly brought Stanley Donen officially on to his team, and the two of them were given more and more creative control over the entire picture, not just the few solo Kelly numbers where he was allowed to really go outside the box. There were some nice love songs in this era, but nothing “classic”.
Even when he was working with a fellow trained dancer, Kelly preferred to give them a spectacular solo number, rather than figure out a way to do a spectacular duet. For instance, the amazing “Get Happy” number from Summer Stock, possibly the best Judy Garland has ever looked, and his way of paying her back for helping him through his first film years earlier.
And then something clicked into place in 1951 and 1952. He suddenly figured out how to do duet dances, to really sell the romance, in An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. It was easier with the first one, he was opposite Leslie Caron, a trained ballet dancer who could match him step for step. In the second, he took poor Debbie Reynolds, a teenager with nothing more than basic dance training, and forced her to work and work until she could match him. But even so, for the most complicated section of the film, he brought in Cyd Charrise, another top level dancer (even if she wasn’t a famous actress yet).
Cyd Charrisse went on to be a star after Singin’ in the Rain. And she was brought in to work with Fred Astaire, who was having a bit of a career return. Thanks to Gene Kelly, strangely enough, who had proved that there was still an audience for dance, so long as you went a little outside the box with it. So he returned to his old standard, a duet dance in a simple location, but put in a few more slightly spectacular moments.
Okay, I could go on and on, but that’s really the basics you need to know and some essential videos to watch. You need to watch them, because everyone who is making the songs you enjoy today has already watched them. Michael Jackson, Prabhudeva, Farah Khan, and definitely the La La Land choreographers.
Now, let’s go alllllllllll the way back to that viral La La Land video. The La La Land dance number, as everyone said basically as soon as the stills came out, is an homage to Fred’s “Dancing in the Dark” number with Cyd Charrisse. And, in a larger sense, is an homage to all those romantic spectacular dance duets from Fred and Gene.
As is “Vennilave”. Everything, from the costuming to the set design, is an homage to the “Love is Here to Stay” number from An American in Paris. An homage, not a rip-off. Prabhudeva plays with the original, adds little twists and turns to the dance moves. Lets the camera move about, the editing add some snap to it.
But the mood of the piece is the same. It’s about a slowly building feeling of love, an almost hypnotic moment, starting slowly and building until they just take off in this huge surge of movement. Which is why it feels so natural matched with La La Land. Indian film is not divorced from the great musical history of American film, and La La Land certainly is not.
And now, if you have made your way aaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll the way to the end of this post, you are not divorced from the musical history of American film either, and you will no longer look at these videos and say either “Oh wow, how original, never been anything like this before!” or “Oh please, it’s just a rip-off of something better”. Because neither of those things are true. This has been done before, but it’s not a rip-off, if you watch the original and the new version next to each other, you can see that they are different and both worthy.
Oh, and here is the clip from Facebook that started this whole thing, sorry can’t get it to embed: