EXCLUSIVE: In quick succession Hollywood’s six-month movie awards season gets into official gear with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals kicking things off. It all begins tomorrow with the Venice Film festival opening-night World Premiere film La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s stunning musical romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Chazelle actually will be at the center of all three festivals as La La Land will be a key player at each of them. He’s excited too as he’s a first-timer at both Venice and Telluride, the latter of which officially announces it schedule Thursday, just in advance of its Friday start.
A more perfect film to launch Oscar season you could not find, as La La Land is not only is a love letter to movies, to movie musicals, to romance, and to Los Angeles, but it is also an ode to people with a dream. It is a movie that has roots in Hollywood’s storied past and the golden era of such MGM musicals as Singin’ In The Rain and The Bandwagon, but also as a valentine to the French musicals of Jacques Demy and Michel LeGrand — specifically The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort. But at its heart it is a thoroughly contemporary film that should have young and old alike swooning, and it is definitely an antidote to the tough and rough times we live in and will be interesting to see how it plays out this season (it opens December 16).
In a current Oscar culture in which such wildly original showbiz-oriented films as The Artist and Birdman have taken the Oscar Best Picture prize, it would not shock me at all to see La La Land enter that same company. The last purely original musical written for the screen to take Best Picture was Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi in 1958. Minnelli’s films, along with Demy’s and others, were pure inspiration for Chazelle, as I learned when I talked to him recently after seeing the movie one morning in a Santa Monica screening room.
“I remember when I saw Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the first time,” he said. “Of course I saw it on a crappy VHS tape. It didn’t matter. I had never seen a musical like that, a musical that was just as kind of high-flying as the sort of MGM style that it was borrowing from, but dealing with both the highs and lows, so to speak, trying to actually kind of reflect a somewhat more realistic version of life and how things don’t always work out in life. There’s something just so beautiful and poetic about it, and it’s still probably my favorite movie ever. So I feel like [La La Land] kind of started there.”
He added: “You know I was getting into musicals at the time. I played around with the genre even when I was in college. It’s when I first met Justin Hurwitz, who did the music. We were always talking about how cool it would be to try to do a musical that was very much in the classic tradition, but that was contemporary, that was about real people, relatable people, and that was about the way that sometimes life feels like a musical, and sometimes it really doesn’t, and trying to reflect both ends of that.”
The movie has a very simple plot to do just that. Gosling plays Sebastian, an aspiring jazz pianist who meets Stone’s character Mia, a waitress working on the Warner Bros lot who aspires to be an actress. Both are superb, showing great musical skills, with Gosling even learning how to play excellent jazz riffs on the piano. The film details the ups and downs of their relationship as each pursues their dreams in the not-always-kind town of Los Angeles. The musical aspect of the film also has its roots in a black-and-white 2009 movie Chazelle did titled Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, a Harvard thesis feature that was in part inspired by the Demy films. It was his dream to get La La Land made, but it just didn’t happen, and he felt he had to make something, so the idea for Whiplash was born.
“I’d kind of written it initially in frustration,” Chazelle said of 2014’s Whiplash. “It was kind of, ‘OK, I will write something that is smaller, that I can actually make realistically, that doesn’t involve a hundred dancers on a freeway.’ “It was Whiplash that got made much more quickly, and thankfully the timing lined up and that film was able to convince people to maybe take a gamble on this.”
As everyone knows, Whiplash worked out nicely, winning big at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and eventually receiving six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won three Oscars and launched Chazelle’s film career into the stratosphere. But it was La La Land that beckoned as he and his producers Jordan Horowitz and Fred Berger continued to try to get it made. Marc Platt, a veteran of many musicals as well as other films, came aboard and so did Lionsgate, to which Chazelle says he will forever be grateful for taking the chance.
So how did this Rhode Island native who grew up in New Jersey become so obsessed with telling a story about L.A.?
“The whole thing was kind of imagining L.A. in your head, which is mainly how you have seen it in movies, and then coming to L.A. and the ways it lives up to those stereotypes, the ways in which it doesn’t, the ways in which it surprises you,” he said. “It’s a very strange,oddball city that I think is just kind of fascinating.” Chazelle added that his dad’s side of the family is all French, like Demy, and he kind of sees what L.A. is like to them. “It’s almost the embodiment of the romantic idea of America, you know, the freeways that go on to infinity, the big horizon, the big sky, the beach, Hollywood, you know the whole thing is so larger than life and so kind of iconic America in their mind. There’s a lot to play with there.”
And play he does with the help of composer Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul along with choreographer Mandy Moore and a remarkable production team that includes cinematographer Linus Sandgren, costume designer Mary Zophres, production designer David Wasco, set decorator Sandy Wasco, and Whiplash‘s Oscar-winning film editor Tom Cross. There are numerous eye-popping musical numbers from the opening on a clogged freeway where dancers pop out of their cars for the ultimate L.A.-inspired production number , to a lilting musical sequence between Gosling and Stone lifted into the skies of the Griffith Observatory. The film also marks the acting debut of John Legend as a musician friend of Gosling. He also contributes a song called “Start A Fire.” Hurwitz’s score includes several songs that could break out including a true paean to L.A. called “City Of Stars.”
At 31, Chazelle is a rare member of his generation who truly gets the glory of a bygone era and seems determined to make it new again. In the course of our 45-minute conversation he clearly demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of movies, all types of movies, and La La Land reflects that in many ways — particularly in a sequence set at a revival-house screening of Rebel Without A Cause where Sebastian and Mia meet up for a late-night date. It is full of melancholy and irony as it follows a dinner table conversation in which the participants discuss why seeing movies at home is far preferable to a theater these days.
That is clearly not Chazelle’s message here. He’s old school, though he told me he realizes not everyone will warm to seeing a musical like this in this day and age. It seems to me, though, that many will be discovering something brand new and startlingly original here and will definitely relate.
“I love how you say that because that was certainly the hope,” he said. “We tried to dust it off a little bit, you know? I find the old musicals so timeless, and so it’s amazing when you put Singin’ In The Rain on for a little kid. It’s just that they have no idea that they’re looking at a movie that was made over a half century ago. So, I think obviously those movies are rare, but I definitely didn’t want it to be a museum piece. I know I have it in me to definitely live in the past of movies, and I think that’s why it was important to try to shoot as much of it as possible and really use L.A. as it is today — use real locations, but obviously sometimes re-design them, but kind of use the city as raw material and have actors like Ryan, Emma or John who could ground it, basically, and make it feel urgent and contemporary.”
Now it is time for Chazelle to let the real world in on the unique dream-driven movie world he and his talented team have created.