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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - La La Land

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

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