La La Land is a great many things: A throwback to classic Hollywood (and French) musicals; a love letter to Los Angeles; a tale of sacrificing for your art; and the current clubhouse favorite to take home the Oscar for best picture.
It's also a big step in the career trajectory of writer/director Damien Chazelle. The 31-year-old Harvard graduate received an Oscar nomination for his Whiplash screenplay. That film explored the maniacal drive of a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) driven and tormented by a taskmaster bandleader (J.K. Simmons). The more escapist La La Land follows an idealistic pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone) as they meet hostile, fall in love and try to balance creative careers with the demands of romance.
Fizzy, funny and light on its feet, La La Land provides a welcome tonic to a year that seemed to last forever. We spoke with Chazelle about learning to love L.A., appreciating the musical genre and how to present people singing and dancing on-screen without leaving the real world.
You've an East Coast native, but your passion for Los Angeles city leaps off the screen in La La Land. How did that come about? I think I've like learned to love the things about L.A. that I used to kind of dislike about L.A. I grew an hour outside New York, and then a lot of my family is from Paris. So I think I came to L.A. with lots of preconceptions about what a city should be. If you come to L.A. hoping for New York or Paris, you're in for a rude awakening. So I had this kind of uneasy relationship with L.A. for the first few years here. But the more I learned to accept L.A., the more I fell in love with it.
L.A. really is an anomaly of a city, which is part of why, to many people, it doesn't really feel like a city at all. It's more like a never-ending sprawl. But I think that sprawl that we like to mock allows for this incredible diversity of neighborhoods, this incredible kind of range of topography, these infinity views the city offers that give it a certain kind of panoramic majesty, and at the very least makes it great fodder for the screen.
What are some of your favorite movie musicals? I remember when I first saw the Jacques Demy musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. They spoke to me in a really profound way. They opened my eyes to what the genre was capable of. When it comes to the Hollywood Pictures, I obviously love many of the classics, including Singin' in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis and the Fred and Ginger movies.
I also loved some of the slightly more experimental Hollywood musicals, early '30s movies like Love Me Tonight or Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. And some of the last gasp musicals from the later '50s, like It's Always Fair Weather and some of the Frank Tashlin movies like The Girl Can't Help It.
In those movies you feel the filmmakers pushing against the edges of the genre in a fun, playful way. It's that kind of playfulness and that kind of audacity that is part of the reason I love musicals to begin with, and part of the opportunities that a musical offers you. It allows you to actually indulge in that kind of playfulness in a way a lot of other genres don't.
I love the way the musical numbers in La La Land walk this line between realism and flight of fancy. Is that a balance you were shooting for? Yes. It had always been my hope to do a movie where it wasn't so much about this clean-cut juxtaposition between musical numbers and real life, or fantasy and real life, but where one would always bleed into the other and the transitions would be a little more seamless. I wanted the musical numbers to feel like they were emerging organically from real life, and then when they finish you feel organically returned to real life. So that you were never entirely in one state of being or another, you were kind of always a little bit in-between.
How did the Hollywood musical fall out of favor? The crumbling of the studio system crumbling meant that there wasn't a sort of ready-made infrastructure in place for musicals to be made. They're hard to make, and you can't really just piece them together on a whim. There was a sense that there was less and less of a place for the kind of unbridled fantasy that a musical can offer.
But I do feel that the musical never stopped being relevant, and that there's something about the conceit at the core of the genre that remains really powerful and completely timeless. This idea that if you feel enough, if you're emotional enough, that can spur you to break into song, or that can spur the rules of the everyday world to stop applying. I think that's something very elemental and really beautiful. So I guess I've always remained optimistic that musicals didn't need to go away, and that there's always a place for them.