La La Land pulls off an impressive balancing act. It is both a nostalgic homage to movie musicals of the past while remaining a sharply contemporary love story.
The film stars Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a struggling, idealistic jazz musician who is brought together with Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia through a series of fateful and comic encounters. They fall in love and the movie tracks the highs and lows of their relationship through the medium of song and dance. This might sound schlocky, but the great skill of La La Land is its ability to channel the romance of classic films such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Singin’ in the Rain without ever tipping over into outright sentiment.
Chazelle conceived the film at Harvard University alongside his then-roommate Justin Hurwitz, who composed the songs and score for it. The sense of a modern take on the musical genre was there from the start. “The first thing that they did together was Damien’s student dissertation film,” says La La Land music director Marius de Vries, who has previously worked on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge. “I think this story, in its basic components, has been around as long as that. And they always dreamed of being able to make it. Of course it was a stretch, because even to shoot it very cheaply, it would still be a very expensive proposition to underwrite on behalf of a first time director.”
It was only after Chazelle created his breakout film Whiplash, a dramatic tale of a jazz student and his abusive teacher, in 2014, that La La Land became a serious proposition in Hollywood. “That unlocked things enough that they could reasonably put this thing into pre-production,” continues de Vries.
“It was at that stage that I first met Damien. It was immediately clear how ambitious the film was. It was clear how focused it was in terms of its aesthetic and the feel of the world, and its balancing of contemporary and somewhat nostalgic elements. Most of all, and Damien was very clear about this, he just wasn’t afraid of being unashamedly and broadly emotional. And also being comfortable sitting in the world of the musical number and again, being unapologetic about that.”
Part of de Vries’s role was to protect that vision. “Pretty much from the get go I was having to adopt a protective strategy for the voice that Damien and Justin were trying to develop, and to try and guide that process so it wouldn’t get diluted or derailed by all the things that can happen to a movie project in development, especially when it’s becoming expensive and therefore being heavily scrutinised.”
Chazelle was keen to cast actors who weren’t professional singers and dancers, in order to bring an element of realism to the performances. So while Gosling and Stone have both had experience of singing, they are known primarily as actors, and needed significant musical support to prepare for the La La Land roles.
“He didn’t want to cast singers who act or dancers who act,” says producer Marc Platt. “He wanted to cast actors who could feel like you and feel like me, and when they have an emotion, like falling in love, it leads them to sing. That was part of his intention.”
Gosling’s piano-playing skills had to undergo some rapid treatment. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” says de Vries. “Four months out of the shoot when he started, we assessed his piano skills and they were minimal. He has a band, he has a musical sensibility, he understands the language, he knows the notes … but it was like ‘how are we going to do this?’”
He received intensive training, though what ultimately turned him into the plausible jazz performer that we see on screen was learning how to act the part of a piano player. “For the first three months and three weeks, he studied and played every note as correctly as he could,” recalls de Vries. “He had the melodies under his fingers but the fast stuff didn’t look right with seven days to go and we were all starting to get a little bit uncomfortable. Then Ryan took the reins…. He just switched gears and spent the last week studying the physicality of piano playing and learning how to act as a piano player, rather than be a piano player, and put those things together.”
Chazelle was also determined that many of the scenes were filmed in a single continuous shot, with Gosling and Stone performing entire songs live to the camera. This is particularly evident in a long audition sequence that Stone performs, which proves pivotal to the plot line.
“It’s a signature of Damien’s style,” says de Vries. “He’s fond of long, lingering uncut sequences where the actor and the performance are given a chance to exist and breathe in a very palpably real and naturalistic way. The audition, most of it being in fairly extreme close-up on Emma, and the whole song and dialogue before it being captured in one shot, was particularly challenging, but I also think particularly valuable in how emotionally believable that key transitional moment in the movie was.”
De Vries was on hand during the performance to act both as musical director but also as a kind of cheerleader for the actors to get them through it. “You’ve got a small window to capture a performance, particularly when it’s a live vocal on set. You’re just there to watch like a hawk and to help correct anything that’s creeping in that’s undesirable. But most of all just to be there as a comforting presence.
“I still watch some of those scenes and I get that uncomfortable, nervous sweaty feeling, thinking ‘oh we’re never going to pull this off’, before I remember that we actually did. It was a white knuckle ride in many ways.”
Like the overall tone of the movie, the music is upbeat but with an element of sadness underneath. “What I love about the music is all of it has, underneath it, a kind of ache,” says Platt. “Even when it’s upbeat, when you’re on the freeway and it’s another day of sun, you realise that lurking underneath it in that melody line is the yearning and ache of people trying to find something.”
Along with the musical challenges, La La Land also contains epic dance routines. The opening sequence alone features 150 dancers, and was shot on a section of the carpool ramp of the Los Angeles highway, leading to Downtown Los Angeles. It was shot over two days in 110 degree heat, according to Platt, with the sequence that appears in the film containing just three long shots stitched together.
“It was depleting both physically and emotionally, but it was also exhilarating,” he recalls. “Sunday afternoon we finished around five, because the sun goes down around six, and nobody wanted to leave. So Damien set up the monitors for all the dancers to watch the takes and hear the applause. It was hard work in the name of joy.”
As to why La La Land is striking such a chord with audiences around the world, Platt puts it down to both Chazelle’s immense skill but also the complex times we are living through. “I think Damien is a singular voice as a filmmaker,” he says. “I can only speak for back in the States, where everybody feels we’re living through very complicated times, so I think something that’s such sheer cinematic joy, that’s transcending and transporting, people are happy and grateful for that experience.
“It makes them think about their lives and choices in their lives. In particular, I think it’s a film about dreams and dreamers – and I think it’s a time more than ever that we need to be dreamers that dream.”
La La Land is on general release across the UK from today