La La Land gloriously revives the musical genre with verve and vigour

La La Land is a cinematic experience unto itself.  It is sweeping but also intimate.  It is large but also romantic.  It is happy and melancholy.  It dances and sings.  And it paints a portrait of love and Los Angeles that you’ve never seen before.

La La Land began with a crazy dream.  Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) wanted to see if he could make a film that channels the magic and energy of the most poignantly romantic French and American musicals of film making’s Golden Age … into our more complicated and jaded age.

For as dizzyingly fast as our world has changed in the last half century, are we any less captive to the whimsies of accidental meetings or missed opportunities, of dreams hitting roadblocks or dreams coming true, of knowing pure, mad love or watching as the demands of the world change our purest connections? Chazelle wondered if song-and-dance storytelling could again bring audiences solace, joy and enduring fairy tales, even in a world where much of cinema is darker and more digitized than ever.

“La La Land deals 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.”

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Boy meets girl meets the up-ending aspirations of the city of stars – and they all break out of the conventions of everyday life as La La Land takes off on an exuberant song-and-dance journey through a life-changing love affair between a jazz pianist and a hopeful actress.  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 reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

The film begins as everything begins in L.A.: on the freeway.  This is where Sebastian meets Mia, with a disdainful honk in a traffic jam that mirrors all too well the gridlock they’re each navigating in their lives.

Both are focused on the kind of near-impossible hopes that are the lifeblood of the city:  Sebastian trying to get people to care about traditional jazz in the 21st Century, Mia aiming to nail just one uninterrupted audition.  But neither expects that their fateful encounter will lead them to take leaps they never could alone.

The leaps they both make, towards each other and, conflictingly, into their grandest artistic dreams, creates its own quintessentially cinematic world of rapture in La La Land – one that with light, color, sound, music and words takes a trip directly into the ecstasies of the happiness we chase… and the heartache of the passions we never get over.

“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 color, sets, costumes and all these very expressionistic elements of Old School movie making to tell a story that takes place in our times.”

Wearing its influences on its sleeve yet taking considerable risks, La La Land allows Chazelle to pay homage to legends of cinema while harnessing its current power to make the most private human terrain – the territory of intimate relationships, personal dreams and the crossroads where decisions set fate into motion – come to life on the screen as a palpably real, yet enchanted, universe.

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“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.”

He goes on:  “La La Land is a very different movie from Whiplash in many ways.  But they 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 L.A. He brings the foundation of great old movies into something for a new generation,” Platt observes.

Working with a group of collaborators who each brought their imaginations to the table

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Damien Chazelle most recently wrote and directed the Academy Award winning Whiplash. Released in 2014 by Sony Pictures Classics Whiplash received five Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle, and three wins, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons. His 2013 short, based on the Whiplash screenplay, won the Short Film Jury Prize at Sundance, and the following year the feature film took home both the Jury and Audience Awards from the festival. Previously, Chazelle wrote Magnolia Picture’s Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack and co-wrote Paramount’s hit thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring John Goodman. His screenplays for Whiplash and The Claim both appeared on the Blacklist. Chazelle made his first feature film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, as an undergraduate at Harvard University. The critically acclaimed musical was named “the Best First Feature of 2010” by L.A. Weekly and “easily the best first film in eons” by Time Out New York.

To forge this hybrid of forward-looking ideas married to classic forms, Chazelle worked with a group of collaborators who each brought their imaginations to the table.  In addition to Berger, Horowitz and Platt, they include composer, Justin Hurwitz, who 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; the Tony and Emmy nominated Broadway lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, dubbed the 21st Century heirs to Rogers and Hammerstein, who put words to the melodies; executive music producer Marius de Vries, who music-directed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and co-scored Romeo + Juliet; and choreographer Mandy Moore who has been bringing contemporary dance into the mainstream on So You Think You Can Dance, and gets her first chance to create large-scale, big-screen dance numbers.

Hurwitz says that he 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 L.A., 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.

Marc Platt notes:  “Throughout La La Land, you have a very contemporary aesthetic.  There is a fluid camera that lets you feel like you are very much in the moment, while taking you back to the era of Golden Hollywood entertainment.”

That aesthetic had its roots in Chazelle’s life-long love of movies, but the film’s origins began with a coffee shop meeting between Chazelle and two rising producers — Fred Berger, who began his career working with Sofia Coppola and produced the award-winning Taking Chance as well as the forthcoming sci-fi thriller The Titan, and Jordan Horowitz, known for the 2010 Oscar®-nominated nontraditional family drama The Kids Are Alright.

Harvard alum Justin Hurtwitz speaking with Ryan Gosling on the set >>of the film “La La Land”

First Pitch

That was when Chazelle first pitched a musical romance set in Los Angeles.

The producers had no idea when or how it would be made at that time, but the sheer aspiration of it intrigued them.

“When we met him, Damien blew us away with his understanding of movies, even though he’d only made one small film.  As we watched him go from a shy young kid to a filmmaker on the rise and fulfill on that promise we saw at that first coffee, it was really something special,” says Berger.

As for his pitch, Berger recalls:  “It was so different and so bold.  We felt it might never get made in the current landscape, so it was worth it to us to devote years to making sure it did. It makes the romantic musical something fresh and visceral.  And given Damien’s encyclopedic knowledge of moviemaking, we felt if there was anyone who could actually pull this movie off, it would be him.”

Adds Horowitz: “Damien has such infectious energy and creativity that when he said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ we were ready to go with him on that journey, whatever it took. But our challenge was to figure out the best way to help him tell this story.  We really loved his concept but from there it was a long process of developing the script, the characters and the songs.”

Horowitz and Berger knew that challenge was huge, but they also knew there was only one way to approach it:  all in.  “We threw caution to the wind,” Horowitz says.

“We were able to follow a more organic process because we really weren’t working towards a specific deadline in the beginning.  We simply knew we would figure out how to make this film.”  In terms of his more classic influences, Chazelle was uniquely inspired by the films of Jacques Demy, the French New Wave director who broke the hyper-serious 1960s mold with intoxicating, candycolored musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and A Room In Town.

“Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do.  There’s no more formative movie for me than Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.  That’s a profound love that I’ve had,” Chazelle says.

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Inspiration and exploring Los Angeles as a muse

Chazelle became struck by the idea of fusing some of his favorite elements from musicals of the 40s, 50s and 60s – the continuous musical score, the eye-popping colors, the mood-driven energy – with his favorite city:  Los Angeles, which becomes as much a romantic character in La La Land as the film’s two lovers. Los Angeles has been many things on films – a searing noir backdrop, a lush bikini paradise, a city high on the fumes of ambition.

But Chazelle set out to explore Los Angeles as Muse, a constantly in-motion canvas of fateful encounters, endless traffic, but also endless striving as everyone chases their own private, unrealized dreams, at times futilely, sometimes transformationally.

“La La Land is about a city that is very epic and unto itself – it’s a wide-screen city,” observes Chazelle.  So I thought it would be great to shoot it in wide-screen, to make it as a big and spectacular to me as a classic Hollywood musical.”    He set the film’s opening music number in a freeway tangle for very clear reasons.

“In L.A. you mostly have cars with one or two people in them.  It’s part of what makes the city feel a bit lonely.  But it’s also reflects how L.A is a crazy haven for dreamers.  Because when you’re in your car, what are you doing?  You’re playing music, or you  dream.  Each dreamer has their own dream; each person is living their own song.   You’re in your own bubble universe, your own living musical.  So that is why that moment is the perfect one for two dreamers like Sebastian and Mia to meet. We use the car radios to create a tapestry of music that everyone, one by one, on this freeway joins into at the moment.”

Chazelle’s Los Angeles is also a city of unseen yearning – an L.A. of hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs, heart-numbing audition waiting rooms, way-stop apartments, and studio coffee shops where the famous and aspirational collide; as well as an L.A. where parties, planetariums and even parking spots can bust out of the mundane and expected to become a kinetic dreamscape rife with musical mirth.

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La La Land is absolutely a love letter to Los Angeles

“La La Land is absolutely a love letter to the city,” says Platt.  “The way the film mixes two people leading very hip, modern lives with all these iconic Hollywood locales is unique.  You get a feeling both of the romantic fantasy of the city and its grounding in real lives.”

Chazelle’s concept for La La Land was elaborate, but a large-scale musical was not exactly an obvious next move for the still up-and-coming filmmaker.  Chazelle is best known for writing and directing the 2014 Oscar-winning drama Whiplash, but before that film was even made, Chazelle had already been exploring the sung-through musical.

His debut film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was a black-and-white romance told through song-and-dance, an edgy re-envisioning of the retro MGM musical made on a shoestring budget as his Harvard senior thesis film in 2009.  For Chazelle, it was equally an opportunity to look back into film history – and move forward.   “I came to the musical late, at the end of high school, when I started getting into avant-garde films, and I started looking at old ‘Fred and Ginger’ movies as part of that tradition,” Chazelle explains.

“The 30s musicals were very experimental and that was exciting.”   Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench established Chazelle as an intriguing new talent.  But Chazelle still harbored grander Technicolor dreams that were just waiting for the right moment for him to sink his teeth into them.

“Guy and Madeline only scratched the surface of what I wanted to do with the genre,” Chazelle says.  “So I continued writing scripts to figure out an idea for a much bigger-scale musical that operated by the same principals, a musical about real life but in keeping with the spectacular Cinemascope and Technicolor musicals of the 1950s.”

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The creative synergy between Chazelle and Hurwitz was catalytic.

These dreams are what led, though not necessarily in straightforward fashion, towards La La Land.  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.   Hurwitz says he and Chazelle have always talked to each other in rhythm and melody.

“Our relationship has always revolved around music – and movies with large musical numbers were always inspirational to both us, whether it was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Singin’ In The Rain.”

Adds Chazelle:  “Justin and I have a distinctive shorthand and we speak the same language.  He wrote the music for Whiplash, he has written the music for La La Land, and I hope he’ll write the music for every film that I do.   Now, Hurwitz was thrilled to see Chazelle create Sebastian and Mia, two modern-day dreamers who echo their own two greatest passions — music and moviemaking.  For Hurwitz, the true-to-life frisson between Sebastian and Mia – so magnetized to one another yet also pushed apart by their individual artistic goals — is the driving force of every creative element, including his score.

“It’s a very romantic movie but there is also a sense of melancholy,” says Hurwitz.  “There is the exhilaration of love and there is haunting heartbreak so all those shadings had to be woven into it.”

The creative synergy between Chazelle and Hurwitz was catalytic.  “Justin has been by my side at every step of the process,” Chazelle notes.

“Before I even wrote any dialogue, when we were still figuring out the story, Justin was working out the musical theme of the film. Even while editing, I was working in one room, and he was working across the hall from me.” Says Fred Berger:  “Justin was a crucial piece of the film’s family from day one.  One of the great joys of this film was that the music was being composed alongside the development of the script – and since Justin and Damien have known each other since they were 18, they work together like brothers in the way they push each other.  Justin literally lives and breathes music and he won’t sacrifice quality for anything. He would send hundreds of piano demos to Damien, who would whittle it down to twenty, then Jordan and I would listen and whittle it down further, and from these small threads, the songs developed almost the way you develop a screenplay.”

Observes Marc Platt: “Justin Hurwitz is a very special talent, a quiet fellow with a real soul, which pours forth in his music. In La La Land, he was asked to write melodies that conjure up many different feelings, that are of the moment but with the feel of a timeless jazz world.  He’s written every note of music in the film – it is a musical voice that echoes Damien’s style and has its own grammar.”

Marius de Vries, who worked alongside Hurwitz and the rest of the creative team from the beginning of preproduction, notes: “It was wonderful to have such a rich and organically coherent framework of Damien’s meticulously foresightful story-telling and Justin’s gorgeous melodies and already sophisticated orchestrations at such a developed level from the very beginning of music preproduction – La La Land had its very own musical flavor from the start. We knew the world and the sonic universe we were in immediately – and so we could protect it and nurture it more easily. As the response to Whiplash cemented Chazelle as a major talent, that breathed new interest into La La Land.  Chazelle presented his vision for the film to Lionsgate, who wanted the film to be made exactly as it was conceived.

“We were allowed to make exactly the movie that Justin and I had first envisioned it back in 2006,” says Chazelle.

“The movie we mad is exactly that movie without any compromise.  Realistically, I think we all expected there to be some compromises because, when does real life ever live up to the fantasy?  But this was a dream come true in that sense.”

As the film grew, Marc Platt, who began his career in theatre and has produced leading movie musicals including Into the Woods and Nine, came aboard to help navigate.   Platt says he could not resist working with Chazelle.

“I’m a great admirer of musicals – but I’m also an admirer of new filmmakers who have something to say, and a particular way of saying it.  I was struck instantly by the way Damien’s vision brought the past into the present.  He was ready to shoot sequences the way old studio films did it, where you never cut away.  He was interested in the rich palette of Demy and the choreography of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.  But at the same time, what made his script so strong is the emotional realism that comes from two lovely, modern characters.”

Still, musical productions are notoriously tough to pull off in today’s film world, Platt confesses. “There are so many more variables than a dramatic film,” he explains.  “First, you have the music – melody, lyrics, orchestration and arrangement – then you have actors who need to learn songs and dance numbers, and all the visual components, the art design, wardrobe, camera, lighting style – all of which has to create a world that is not quite the real world but is related to it. The question was:  could we actually unify all this into something with a single tone that would feel contemporary?”

Part of the answer lay in casting in the leads a pair of actors who are a distinctly contemporary coupling.  Comments Chazelle:  “The idea here was to both embrace the old Hollywoodness of an iconic screen coupling that you’ve seen before.  You used to have Fred and Ginger, Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and Dick Powell, these larger-than-life couples who take on different roles but are always these huge personas.  It’s an idea I find incredibly romantic, and I felt that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the closest that we have today to that today.  At the same time, I felt they could also help make this movie feel surprising and to subvert expectations. So the movie also strips away some of the veneer and the gloss that we normally associate with Ryan and Emma when they’re together.”

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For as much as La La Land is a breathless romance it is also a tale of what we give up to pursue our own private dreams. “Ironically, for Sebastian and Mia to achieve their dreams, they also need to separate. I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being –but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone,” says Chazelle.  “You can have a union that winds up dictating the rest of your life but doesn’t last the rest of your life.  I find that incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking and wondrous.  At its soul, I wanted this movie to be about that.”

Jordan Horowitz was gratified by how the film’s entire corps unified to pull off the feat of making a modern musical.  “There were many great collaborations on this film and I think what made it unusual is that everyone was really passionate about their own work but also in creating Damien’s vision as joyfully as he created it.”

Adds Fred Berger:  “The result is such a visceral experience it really lends itself to the big screen, to going out to have a fun, happy time.  The characters are authentic but it is also a visual spectacle from beginning to end.”   For Platt, every carefully-rendered element of La La Land – from the dialogue to the songs, performances, photography and right down to the tiniest details of the sets and costumes – synchronizes together to create something that, like romance, feels mysteriously more than the sum of its parts.

“La La Land is a cinematic experience unto itself.  It is sweeping but also intimate.  It is large but also romantic.  It is happy and melancholy.  It dances and sings.  And it paints a portrait of love and Los Angeles that you’ve never seen before. Ultimately, it may transport you into a different kind of feeling than you’re used to having at the movies,” Platt concludes.   Chazelle hopes one of the feelings the film evokes is passion, since that was the root if its intricate creation.

“I do think La La Land is about passion — it’s about passion for art and passion for love and hopefully the passion with which we approached the movie, with which we wrote it, with which we composed the music for it and with which we present it is something you feel.”