SONG AND DANCE MAN
Director Damien Chazelle wanted La La Land to be more than just an homage to the classic Hollywood musical, writes Caryn James
Damien Chazelle understands that plenty of people avoid musicals. “One of my biggest dreams, when we were starting out, was to make a movie that people who think they don’t like musicals would like,” says the 31-yearold writer and director of La La Land.
A brightly coloured romance set in presentday Los Angeles, La La Land follows a jazz musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and an actress named Mia (Emma Stone) as they sing and dance their way into a relationship and through their struggling careers.
With the film set to open on Monday, overseas reviews have been rapturous, and recently La La Land was named the year’s best film by the New York Film Critics Circle, an award that usually portends a serious Oscar contender. But the filmmakers were aware that a movie inspired by musicals of a bygone era could be a tough sell.
The challenge, Chazelle says, was to make the old-fashioned Hollywood musical feel contemporary, even realistic. “Let’s try to imagine a Fred and Ginger number happening in real life.”
His strategy was to ease the audience into the music. Sebastian and Mia never burst into song. They go through their lives and gradually begin to sing and dance.
“I thought of it like the frog boiling slowly in water. Maybe people wouldn’t realise they’ve been suckered into a musical until it was too late and they’re thinking, ‘ How did I get here? I’m supposed to walk out when the musical numbers start’,” says the director, whose last film was Whiplash.
Those numbers range from dozens of people dancing on a traffic-clogged freeway, to Sebastian alone, strolling along a pier singing City of Stars, about whether Los Angeles will prove lucky for him.
The main example of easing into the music comes in Lovely Night, in which Sebastian and Mia are on a park bench at the start of their romance. The number deliberately evokes Fred Astaire singing Isn’t This a Lovely Day? to Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, from 1935.
Chazelle made sure the melody first arrives as part of the score. “Then Sebastian starts singing, but his singing sounds almost like him talking.” Then he begins to dance.
Four-time Emmy-nominated choreographer Samantha Jo (Mandy) Moore says she and Chazelle called their approach “falling into the dance”. In the film’s opening scene, of the traffic jam, a woman gets out of her car and stretches, as if she’s been sitting too long. “Damien was very clear that he wanted her to do very little when she came out of the door,” Moore says. That actress soon swirls her sunglasses and becomes the first person to sing in what turns into a full-blown choreographed number.
Throughout, Chazelle wanted the actors to make the characters seem to be living in Los Angeles, not on a Hollywood sound stage. “There is a style of performance that is in keeping with full-blown songs and belting, and it creeps into the dialogue,” he says. “Here I wanted it to feel intimate and off the cuff, almost improvisational.”
The film’s sense of reality was enhanced by the way Chazelle shot LA. Those influences, he says, were “not from musicals and more from the way I felt that the city was best depicted on screen, in Robert Altman movies like The Long Goodbye or Short Cuts”, and in films such as Boogie Nights. The look is sun-filled and sprawling but with a lived-in feel.
Composer Justin Hurwitz, who also wrote the percussive soundtrack for Whiplash, found models as different as Michel Legrand’s lavish, jazz-inflected music for Jacques Demy’s 1960s French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“Audrey Hepburn’s voice is breathy and vulnerable, which is the type of voice Emma Stone has.” That model became especially pertinent to Stone’s solo, Audition, about reaching for your dreams.
Everyone behind the scenes was aware of the need to reimagine those influences rather than simply quote them, Chazelle says. In the film, John Legend plays Keith, who entices Sebastian into a successful pop-music band, telling him he has to give up his sentimental grip on old-school jazz. Mia sees Keith as a villain.
“I actually share the viewpoint John Legend’s character has in the movie,” says the director. “An art form that becomes purely about nostalgia just dies.” opens nationally on Monday. The Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) is one of Australia’s leading centres for the development and presentation of contemporary art. Its mission is to create career-defining moments for artists, life changing experiences for audiences and critical turning points in the advancement of art forms.
Director Damien Chazelle, left, with Ryan Gosling on the set of La La Land