Great movies, like great symphonies and great paintings, echo and reverberate through time.
With its jazz-flavored score, Technicolor costuming, and classic dancing, the 2016 film, La La Land, garnered critical acclaim, five Academy Awards, and enthusiastic audiences.
But sixty-five years before La La Land, there was An American in Paris.
The 1951 musical, starring the indomitable Gene Kelly and elegant Leslie Caron, weds the worlds of symphonic music, dance, and fine art into a movie that’s inspired audiences and filmmakers for generations.
Grand Rapids Pops presents An American in Paris with a full-length screening of the entire movie, coupled with a live performance by the Grand Rapids Symphony. Shows are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12. Tickets start at $18 adults, $5 students.
Part of the Fox Motor Pops series, the show features the film projected onto a 40-foot screen above the orchestra while the musicians play the iconic film score with the music of George Gershwin.
Damien Chazelle, director of the award-winning La La Land, admitted he “pillaged” from An American in Paris to make his 2016 box-office hit come to life. “An American in Paris is such a stunner,” Chazelle explains. “It’s an awesome example of how daring some of those old musicals really were. It’s incredible that it ever got made, let alone that it won best picture.”
Daring indeed. The film sets the artistic bar high and never looks back.
Set just after World War II, An American in Paris features Gene Kelly as Jerry, an ex-GI living in Paris, attempting to become a successful painter, while falling in love with Leslie Caron’s character, Lise, a shop girl in the city of lights. The two characters, separated from each other by would-be romantic partners vying for their attention, struggle to find a way to be together.
All the while, the film boldly brings together the best of several artistic genres: The finest of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs and the best of George Gershwin’s symphonic music with his An American in Paris, ballet piece, hailed as a “jaunty, jazzy symphonic poem” by the New York Times.
Gene Kelly’s choreography and prowess bring together classical and modern dance, as he and Leslie Caron dance their way through sets inspired by famous paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and Toulouse-Latrec. The enterprise, masterful and elegant, elevated the musical to high art that still resonates deeply with audiences.
Associate conductor John Varineau will lead the orchestra through the musical genius of George and Ira Gershwin songs, including Embraceable You, Our Love is Here to Stay, and I Got Rhythm, along with the nearly 20-minute-long ballet piece, An American in Paris.
Musicals sometimes get a bad rap: Where, in real life, does anyone burst into song spontaneously? Where, in real life, can a simple love song unite people in perfect relational harmony?
Real life may not be so tidy as musicals suggest, but An American in Paris is more daring and less tidy than one might think.
Damien Chazelle sums it up: “That finale is completely experimental, avant-garde filmmaking. Nothing but Gershwin, Gene Kelly, and painted sets. You look at that and realize how daring the film was.”
Written by Jenn Collard, Grand Rapids Symphony Public Relations Intern