It’s no secret that filmmakers often like to pay homage to the films they love in their own work. George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese are just a few examples of directors who frequently nod to the cinema that inspired them. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land — essentially a feature-length homage to classic musicals of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s — is just the latest entry in this long tradition of tributes. But its rampant success — including six Academy Awards (and one major Oscar mixup) — belies the fact that homage is neither an easy thing to pull off nor one without its pitfalls. Considering how well La La Land does with it, we decided to study its example and share some of the lessons it can teach other filmmakers on how to do homage right.
1. Evoke, Don’t Recreate
Among all the hat-tips that La La Land gives to the musicals of the past — including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story (1961), and Shall We Dance (1937) — no musical number is ever quite a direct copy of an existing one. Yes, numbers like “Epilogue” channel Broadway Melody of 1940 (among many others), but we never get a direct recreation of, say, “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat (1935). We just get scenes that are like them. Why does that matter? Because dutiful recreation can risk being something of an empty creative act — not unlike someone putting a piece of paper over someone else’s work and tracing it — if it’s imitation, rather than interpretation. Sometimes that can have its place, but it can also lead to filmmaking that’s less interesting to do, as well as less interesting to see. It is also prohibits another key lesson…
2. Have Something of Your Own to Say
All of us have been at a party where we end up spending 20 minutes going back and forth with someone about how great some TV show or movie is. Passionately gushing about something being great isn’t a sin — but it can be detrimental in filmmaking. An homage that has no other purpose than to say “Isn’t this other movie great?” isn’t terribly exciting. In the eagerness to pay tribute, a key lesson can get lost: homage is not enough. You still have to make a movie that has something of its own to say. La La Land may eagerly seek to enthuse about the musicals to which it’s indebted, but homage is never its end goal; instead, it uses it as a tool to tell its own story — one about love, compromise, careers, dreams, and disappointments.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of a Little Self-Awareness
Considering La La Land is a movie that clearly longs for, and wishes to recreate, the bygone glory days of the Hollywood musical, it does something clever: it makes one of its characters someone who longs for, and wishes to recreate, the bygone glory days of jazz. And through that little bit of meta filmmaking, the film explores whether there’s danger in someone getting stuck in an art form’s past. In other words, La La Land is a little bit about, well, La La Land. It’s a cheeky way of taking ownership of how homage sometimes can be overly nostalgic and stuck in the past — especially when it’s throwing nods at a genre or style of filmmaking that’s long past its heyday. Now, most filmmakers don’t go this far, but many will satisfy themselves with a sly wink at the audience here and there. Either way, it can show viewers you’re aware that homage is something of a regressive act, and it also puts you in a better state of mind to incorporate the first two lessons above.
4. Homage Isn’t Just About Visuals
Filmmaking is a visual medium, which is why homages often tend to manifest visually — creating new images built out of or on top of old ones. La La Land has no shortage of that, but the film’s tribute-paying also goes much deeper via its storytelling, which slyly incorporates narrative elements from everything from Casablanca (1942) to A Star Is Born (1937). Sure, visuals will be the most obvious way that audiences will pick up on your references, but story makes the experience richer. It’s not unlike how Stranger Things may have an encyclopedia’s worth of visual nods to 1980s pop culture, but its richest homage lies in its evocation of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King-style storytelling. In other words, a film shouldn’t just look the part, because stories — arguably more than images — resonate more deeply.
5. Understand What You’re Paying Homage To
La La Land doesn’t just superficially dive into the classic musicals its channeling. It gets them. Take the film’s homage to Gene Kelly’s extended Singin’ in the Rain “Broadway Melody” sequence and the ballet in An American in Paris (1951). It’s anything but half-hearted. The film beautifully breaks down the sequences’ fundamental elements — fantasy sequence, short-film-like self-contained story, rainbow spectrum of primary colors, broad transitions between location, music, and dance — then reassembles them. It’s a lot like reverse-engineering: you have to understand how something works before you build it for yourself. It’s clear Damien Chazelle did just that with the musicals he loves, and as a result, was able to capture the spirit of what makes some of the greatest numbers of all time work (and become the youngest person in history to win an Oscar for Best Director). Therein, incidentally, may also lie the spirit of all the lessons above: good homage requires thought, consideration, and the willingness to build with the past — but also to build upon it.
Top Image: Still from La La Land, courtesy of Lionsgate Entertainment