Damien Chazelle may make his living as a filmmaker, but at heart he belongs in a different profession: music.
Each of his three features has revolved around the power of rhythm. While his low-budget 2009 film about a struggling trumpeter, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, wasn’t widely seen, his 2014 followup, Whiplash, in which a fledgling jazz drummer goes to war with his monstrous music professor, was a breakout smash and an Oscar winner.
Now, the director/writer is back with La La Land, an old-fashioned, song-and-dance cinematic soft-shoe starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and John Legend that eschews the modern meaning of the form known as the musical.
Though it’s set in contemporary Los Angeles, no one is going to confuse this lavish love story and love letter to the City of Angels with Straight Outta Compton. It’s closer in spirit to Fred and Ginger than Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
“Falling in love with old Hollywood musicals of that era was what got me started thinking about stuff,” Chazelle, 31, said by phone from Los Angeles, and that infatuation informed Guy and Madeline. “It just opened up the thought process of trying to [re-create] the magic of the Hollywood musical, which feels as far removed from real life, in a way, as you can get. … It’s a very artificial genre. And trying to make it feel as real and realistic as possible, it was that kind of combination that ultimately lead to La La Land.”
With this $30 million film, opening Friday in North Texas, he has his biggest canvas yet to show off his penchant for combining music and movies.
La La Land is heading into awards season with major buzz — it just received seven Golden Globe nominations, including best picture, musical or comedy — and, much like The Artist did with silent movies in 2011, it is being hailed for bringing attention to a genre many younger audiences may be totally unfamiliar with, at least in its traditional format. Musicals in the modern world mean Hamilton on stage and the “Step Up” movies, not Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
“Certainly, the kind of romanticism and dancing that I wanted in this movie needed something closer to that [older] kind of language than a lot of contemporary music,” Chazelle said. “But I guess I also just find something very timeless about a big, 90-piece orchestra scoring a movie.”
Playing at a young age
Chazelle is a trained musician and some of his experiences as a jazz drummer became the foundation for the exaggerations of Whiplash, which starred Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as student and teacher. Chazelle even used to be in a rock band with Justin Hurwitz, the composer with whom he has worked on each of his films.
Though Chazelle has said he gave up pursuing music professionally because he wasn’t good enough, it’s something that is always with him.
“Music was such an important part of my life. It’s just sort of a world and a language that I know firsthand,” he said. “I love more specifically just what the possibilities are of combining music and film … that each can inform each other. … Whether it’s the subject matter or no, it’s kind of at the forefront of anything that I do.”
Much as with his two previous films, the star of La La Land is a musician. This time, Gosling is a temperamental jazz pianist who falls hopelessly in love with a sweet barista-by-day/actress-by-night played by Stone.
Many moviegoers might not think of Gosling and Stone, who played opposite each other in the 2011 comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, as potential heirs to Astaire and Rogers. But former Mickey Mouse Club star Gosling did play in a band (Dead Man’s Bones) and plays piano well enough to pull off some of what is seen in La La Land. When she was much younger, Stone did some musical theater.
“I thought of them when I was writing the script — this would have been in 2010, 2011,” Chazelle said. “It didn’t seem like I’d ever be able to actually get them in the movie. During the years that followed, financing and casting and all that stuff went through lots of permutations. … But when it finally wound up, it was this wonderful opportunity to try to use this kind of chemistry and charisma that they both have together and individually.
“Knowing that this was an original musical where people didn’t know the music going in, I needed two actors who would be able to reach out to an audience and take them by the hand into this heightened world, this more unfamiliar world.”
I love L.A.
Of course, just talking about the music and writing leaves out one of the most important aspects of La La Land: L.A. itself. “La la,” of course, can refer to music, while the phrase “la la land” is a dismissive slam for someone or something that’s out of touch, and it’s been applied to Los Angeles often.
Chazelle wanted to turn that negative notion on its head. Even though he is from the New York City area, he wanted to toast the often-maligned West Coast metropolis.
I definitely wanted to try to make the case for this kind of musical being a modern, rising, vibrant kind of art form.
Damien Chazelle, director of ‘La La Land’
“That kind of full-blown romance, that kind of love letter felt like something we hadn’t seen in Los Angeles for awhile,” Chazelle said. “I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think of L.A. as a romantic city on the level of a Paris or New York.”
Chazelle is hopeful that, because of La La Land, his passion for both L.A. and pre-rock music forms might intrigue others enough to seek out what inspired him.
“I definitely crammed a lot of the things I love most into this movie,” he said. “Whether it is parts of L.A. or jazz recordings or old musicals, I do think a lot of these things are timeless, and are therefore still relevant, still urgent.
“Certain art forms sometimes get labeled with a brush preemptively … as outdated or what have you. I definitely wanted to try to make the case for this kind of musical being a modern, rising, vibrant kind of art form.”