BY BILLY SUTER
THE recent winner of seven Golden Globe Awards – the most won by any film since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 – La La Land is a musical that further accentuates the exciting star potential of young writer and director Damien Chazelle.
It was Chazelle, you might recall, who wrote and directed Whiplash, a drama about a promising young drummer at a cut-throat music conservatory and the strict instructor who will stop at nothing to realise his potential. That film took three Oscars – for sound mixing, editing and the supporting performance of J K Simmons.
Chazelle’s La La Land, centred on a life-changing love affair between a jazz pianist and a hopeful actress, won all the Golden Globes for which it was nominated. It took statuettes for best musical or comedy, Chazelle’s screenplay and direction, as well as for the lead performances of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, score and song.
Opening in South Africa on Friday, January 27, the film has garnered 14 Oscar nominations – tying it with 1997’s Titanic and 1950’s All About Eve for the most Oscar nominations for a movie. The Oscars ceremony is scheduled for February 26.
At once an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics, a love letter to the Los Angeles of unabated dreams, and a distinctly modern romance, the film opens on a freeway.
This is where pianist Sebastian meets actress Mia, with a disdainful honk in a traffic jam that mirrors all too well the gridlock they’re each navigating in their lives, according to the film’s production notes.
Sebastian is trying to get people to care about traditional jazz in the 21st Century, while Mia is aiming to nail just one uninterrupted audition. But neither expects that their fateful encounter will lead them to take leaps they never could alone.
Chazelle says in the film’s production notes: “To me, it was important to make a movie about dreamers, about two people who have these giant dreams that drive them, that bring them together, but also tear them apart.”
“La La Land is a very different movie from Whiplash in many ways. But both deal with something that’s really personal to me: how you balance life and art, how you balance reality and dreams and also, specifically, how you balance your relationship to your art with your relationships with other people.
“With La La Land, I wanted to tell that story using music, song and dance. I think the musical as a genre is a great vehicle for expressing that balancing act between dreams and reality.”
The components of the film might be ageless, but producer Marc Platt, a veteran of stage and film musicals, notes the approach is novel.
Platt joined up with producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, who closely developed the project from the start with Chazelle.
“Damien has reinvigorated the genre by drawing on classic elements, but bringing them forth in a way that speaks to contemporary life in LA. He brings the foundation of great old movies into something for a new generation,” Platt explains in the production notes.
Composer Justin Hurwitz takes a creative partnership he began with Chazelle on their previous films Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench into the crafting of an entire musical universe.
Also roped in for the project were celebrated Broadway lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin, who put words to the melodies, and executive music producer Marius de Vries, who music-directed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
The film’s choreographer is Mandy Moore, who has been bringing contemporary dance into the mainstream on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, and gets her first chance to create large-scale, big-screen dance numbers.
Hurwitz says the and Chazelle looked for ways to bring a contemporary language – musical, visual and emotional languages – to a genre that runs the risk of nostalgia.
“The idea of doing not just a musical, but a musical that is about the realities of love and dreams in today’s LA, energized me and Damien,” the composer says. “Musicals are so heightened and we adore that about them but we also loved the idea of capturing a real feeling of current life within that heightened world.”
For Moore, La La Land takes its own place, suspended on the border between the current and the timeless.
“The film showcases how culturally relevant the beautiful marriage between music, movement, acting, singing, and storytelling can be,” she sums up.
La La Land itself began with a crazy dream, according to the film’s production notes. Chazelle wanted to see if he could make a movie that channels the magic and energy of the most poignantly romantic French and American musicals of filmmaking’s Golden Age … into our more complicated and jaded age.
Says Chazelle: “With La La Land, I wanted to do a love story and I also wanted to create a musical like the musicals that entranced me as a kid, but updated into something very modern. I wanted to explore how you use colour, sets, costumes and all these very expressionistic elements of ‘old school’ movie making to tell a story that takes place in our times.”
Chazelle first began working on the outline of the story with composer Hurwitz – who first met as students at Harvard – long before the two collaborated on the acclaimed scores for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash.
He may not have seemed an obvious choice for the lead role of pianist Sebastian, but Ryan Gosling had his own longheld affection for movie musicals that came into play the minute he came aboard.
Says Gosling: “I was really intrigued by the fact that Damien wanted to make a film in the style of that Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly eras, because those are the musicals that move me.
“The fact that he wanted this film to have that kind of aesthetic and spirit of playfulness was fantastic because it was also a secret wish of mine to make a film like that.”
An equal magnet for Gosling was the intrigue of playing a man who worships with his very being an artform that seems to be dying on the vine of a ruthlessly fast-changing pop culture.
Composer Hurwitz was impressed by Gosling’s unremitting drive.
“The work Ryan did learning to play piano is absurdly great. I can’t get over it,” says Hurwitz. “His level of commitment to the piano not to mention the acting, singing and dance training – was spectacular. It was one of the really great surprises of the film to see how much he was able to accomplish.”
Choreographer Moore also has high praise for the actor: “I could tell from the minute we started, Ryan was talented. He’s very coordinated but also very hard on himself. From the first day he kept saying, ‘Ah, I can do it better’.But from my perspective, his progression was impressive. It was like a slow burn.”
Stone faced a challenge with her role – playing a character who has to be at once anchored in very real goals and feelings, while also able to erupt into musical fantasia at a moment’s notice, combining the two seamlessly.
It helped that Stone has not only explored the depths of dramatic roles, but also has the skills of a Broadway veteran who recently starred as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret.
Says Chazelle: “Just the level of her acting in the song and dance scenes, and the way she expresses such gradations of emotion. is amazing. I think she’s one of the great actresses of our time and you can create something without any dialogue, purely through her face, her mannerisms and body language.”
Gosling adds: “She’s also an amazing dancer and I was really leaning on her a lot of the time, literally.”
Joining the cast of La La Land in his first major film role is 10-time Grammy winner and Oscar-winner John Legend. who portrays Keith, the musician who enlists Sebastian to join his rapidly rising band, The Messengers, and takes him far away from Mia.
Legend also co-wrote the Golden Globe-winning song, Start a Fire, which rockets the Messengers to fame in the film.