On Tuesday 8th November the world watched in disbelief as Donald Trump, a billionaire New York businessman, defied the pollsters and any shred of common sense to continue a year of major political reform. “Brexit times ten” was how he and aide Nigel Farage (a man all too familiar to UK voters) described the potential upset that subsequently materialized.
The internet exploded as results trickled in and the unfortunate reality unfolded. No prizes for guessing my stance on this. As I watched from the other side of the pond, no less concerned but ever-so-slightly relieved that the UK will no longer be remembered as the dumbest country of 2016, I searched for solace. I had to strain, reaching into the deepest, darkest intellectual corners to find something to latch on to, but alas we do have a saviour.
There is salvation in the political unrest, democratic upheaval and downright mess that Americans have dragged themselves into. That salvation, ever reliably, comes in the form of the Hollywood musical.
My inspiration for this article comes from an insightful read courtesy of Sasha Stone at Awards Daily. Naturally, she concludes that a Trump presidency will spark a wave of sentiment towards racially poignant drama such as Loving and Fences, and no doubt these films will earn themselves a few more followers in the wake of the election, but it was the final paragraph that caught my eye (and no, before you ask, I didn’t just read the bullet points and the last bit):
As for whether I personally believe 11/9 will impact our Oscar frontrunners like 9/11 once did, I have to say I don’t. It still feels like La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight have a degree of baked-in esteem that will be hard to overcome. No matter who won the election, I think films as outstanding as these would have done well either way. Will La La Land feel “too light” for voters who have been traumatized by this election? I just don’t know. Maybe the Oscars will reach for it as a fleeting chance to feel good for a couple of hours, as a way to forget that we all just helped elect a monster wearing a dancing monkey suit.
The case for Arrival, 13th and others was argued eloquently and irrefutably by Sasha, but the impact to awards season will likely extend deeper than just face value protest ballots.
2003 was a turbulent year in American politics and, by default, for American society. Since the events of 9/11 a wave of movies exploring our relationship with violence, with terrorism and directly with war rose to prominence on the cultural landscape and dominated awards season, and just several days before the awards the country declared war on Iraq, almost postponing the ceremony. Gangs of New York, The Pianist and Bowling for Columbine were among the biggest hitters at the 75th Academy Awards, but the Best Picture winner? Rob Marshall’s showstopping musical spectacle Chicago.
Prior to this in 2002, one of the breakout contenders, surprising considering a trend away from the genre since the late 1960s, was Moulin Rouge. The film won two Oscars with a further six nominations including Best Picture.
Looking ahead to 2013, a year immediately succeeding Obama’s reelection, amid the war dramas and biopics such as Argo and Lincoln was Tom Hooper’s stylistic adaptation of Les Miserables. With three Oscars and a further five nominations including Best Picture, this makes it one of the most successful musicals in awards season for over 40 years.
So in response to Sasha, La La Land may not be too light at all. In fact a bit of indulgent escapism, which the musical delivers better than any other genre, can be just the antidote in times of social and political anxiety. Historically the genre has failed to light up awards season since Oliver! back in the late 60s and, barring a few minor success stories along the way including a stream of 90s Disney animations, it wasn’t until the 2000s when musicals started turning heads again.
It could just be a great coincidence that during a time when the political conscience of America has been battered to breaking point, the musical has experienced a major uptick in popularity among Academy voters. Or it could be that, far from films that shine a spotlight on the problems and force debate – those films Sasha singled out which will inevitably do well due to their relevance if nothing else – cinema is being used as an experience to run away from the harsh realities of life and, just for a couple of hours, sink into the imagination.
The musical is an experience that transcends time and place, but transports its audience into another world entirely. Maybe the cure for election trauma is not a stark reminder of the issues you face as a nation, and we face as a world, in the coming four years, but a therapeutic escape to a place where glamorous stars sing and dance our problems away before a glittering fantastical landscape.
Oscar ballots are imminently being cast, and so the election will shape the nominees. Fences, Loving, Arrival, 13th and Hacksaw Ridge were contenders before, and they will be perhaps more prominently so going forward. But ultimately, and historically, despite our recognition of films that confront today’s issues, the film that stands out will do its best to mask them.
If anything, La La Land has become more likely to win Best Picture than ever before and for that, for the first and only time in my life: thank you President Trump.