WATCH­ING FROM THE WINGS

The man who turned Ryan Gosling into a jazz ‘pian­ist’ will never win an Os­car — and that’s OK, writes Oliver Thring

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

La La Land is Hollywood’s lat­est war­bling hymn to it­self: a glit­ter­ing, strange and nu­anced musical that si­mul­ta­ne­ously cham­pi­ons and un­der­mines the genre. This week it won six Os­cars, in­clud­ing the best di­rec­tor, best ac­tor and best score awards, and in Jan­uary it won an un­prece­dented seven Golden Globes. The movie stars Ryan Gosling as a dis­ap­pointed and churl­ish jazz ob­ses­sive, scrap­ing a living play­ing tin­kly Christ­mas songs in bars. Emma Stone is his co-star, in her Os­car­gar­ner­ing role of a would-be ac­tor serv­ing cap­puc­ci­nos on the Warner Bros lot and cir­cu­lat­ing from one failed au­di­tion to an­other.

It is a sump­tu­ous and in­tel­li­gent film about love and thwarted am­bi­tion, and many agree it has helped to re­viv­ify mu­si­cals, which seem to fluc­tu­ate in and out of fashion al­most with ev­ery gen­er­a­tion.

An English­man over­saw all of La La Land’s mu­sic: Mar­ius De Vries, the movie’s ex­ec­u­tive mu­sic pro­ducer, says his role was “cus­to­dial, nur­tur­ing the film’s musical uni­verse”. While composer Justin Hur­witz this week won an Acad­emy Award for his La La Land score, De Vries played a key role in help­ing to con­ceive and write the mu­sic for the film. He also worked with the actors to se­cure the most au­then­tic per­for­mances.

But as the Golden Globes cer­e­mony un­folded in Los An­ge­les last week­end, and La La Land won best orig­i­nal song and best orig­i­nal score, he was forced to keep to his seat.

“In their wis­dom,” he says with just a hint of frus­tra­tion, “both the Acad­emy [Awards] and the Globes do not recog­nise a mu­sic di­rec­tor as be­ing wor­thy of a statue.”

Should they? “That’s the way they’ve al­ways done it,” he replies diplo­mat­i­cally. “And ev­ery award is re­ally for the whole cast and crew.”

De Vries, 55, may not have bab­bled any tear­ful thank-yous last week, but he should not be pitied. He has al­ready won two BAFTAs and been nom­i­nated for five Gram­mys. Today he is prob­a­bly the most re­spected mu­sic di­rec­tor work­ing in Hollywood; in La La Land, he mas­ter­minded Gosling’s trans­for­ma­tion from be­gin­ner to ap­par­ent jazz piano vir­tu­oso in just four months. “It was a mys­te­ri­ous and mag­i­cal process,” he says in the loft con­ver­sion he re­cently bought in downtown Los An­ge­les. “Jazz wasn’t Ryan’s nat­u­ral habi­tat. The band he plays in cer­tainly doesn’t per­form it, and I thought it would be im­pos­si­ble for him to look con­vinc­ing enough on screen. We had a hand­dou­ble stand­ing by at all times.

“But when he per­formed his first piano scene on the sec­ond day of shoot­ing, the crew re­sponded with stunned si­lence be­fore burst­ing into ap­plause.”

Fair enough. Al­though I won­der whether any­one given four months of in­ten­sive tu­ition with a world-class teacher, as Gosling was, could achieve some­thing sim­i­lar. “Not a chance,” says De Vries. “What you see on screen tes­ti­fies to very spe­cial adapt­abil­ity, per­se­ver­ance and ta­lent.”

From A Star is Born to Sin­gin’ in the Rain and The Artist, Hollywood has al­ways lav­ished praise on films about it­self. But why should au­di­ences be ex­pected to en­joy them, too? Part of the al­lure of La La Land, hinted at in its wry name, is in its ac­knowl­edg­ment of Hollywood’s ar­ti­fi­cial­ity.

“If a film is emo­tion­ally true and well made but also an art form ca­pa­ble of ex­am­in­ing it­self, then it be­comes eas­ier to en­joy it as a richer ex­pe­ri­ence,” says De Vries. “It’s not just sto­ry­telling: it be­comes self-ex­am­i­na­tion. But it’s worth men­tion­ing that the Acad­emy isn’t in­ter­ested in films that show the uglier un­der­bel­lies of the busi­ness or of Hollywood — think of Swim­ming with Sharks” — a 1994 com­edy, star­ring Kevin Spacey, about bul­ly­ing movie moguls. Sun­set Boulevard may be the ex­cep­tion that proves the rule.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing things about La La Land is the way it probes the ten­sion be­tween cre­ative in­tegrity and the mar­ket’s de­mands. What, it asks, does an artist lose when he or she sells out? “The ques­tion has been a ten­sion in my own ca­reer as well,” says De Vries. “To counter it, I try to make each of my projects very dif­fer­ent. If I’m in China work­ing on an opera in­flu­enced by the folk mu­sic of Yun­nan, I’ll want to do hip hop af­ter­wards.”

His taste is not so much eclec­tic as wil­fully di­verse. I ask what is on his iPad and he pulls up his most re­cent Spo­tify playlist. On it are “the new Paul Si­mon records, Brian Eno, Nils Frahm, Autechre, Beethoven quar­tets, TS Eliot’s record­ing of his Four Quar­tets and Jo­hann Jo­hanns­son. It shows how sick I am,” he says. “I can’t fo­cus on any­thing.”

He nearly had to pull out of La La Land in what he calls the “fran­tic, fin­ish­ing-up mo­ments of post-pro­duc­tion”. Dur­ing that vi­tal phase, his mother died. “It was a ter­ri­bly tough year,” he says. “No one is strong enough to sur­vive the loss of a mother without it af­fect­ing them. But I was ably sup­ported by my team.”

Though largely well re­viewed, La La Land has been crit­i­cised on racial grounds. Jazz is his­tor­i­cally a black art form and sev­eral crit­ics have taken is­sue with the fact it falls to Gosling’s char­ac­ter, a white man, to “res­cue” the genre.

“It’s sim­ply not true that the film is racially slanted,” says De Vries. “The di­rec­tor [32-yearold Damien Chazelle] was deeply aware of those is­sues, as was I. Peo­ple are wrong to make snap moral judg­ments like that. I wish that the level of po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion in the United States was more hon­est; it’s al­most em­bar­rass­ing living here at the mo­ment.”

De Vries is hand­some enough to have been given a cameo in the film as an un­pleas­ant cast­ing di­rec­tor; in re­al­ity he is ar­tic­u­late and se­ri­ous, with a gruff­ness that per­haps be­trays his Afrikaner an­ces­try. He says his work with Ice­landic singer Bjork was piv­otal in his ca­reer:

“Her sur­real, avant-garde ap­proach to cre­ativ­ity gave me a mas­sive dose of con­fi­dence. I ap­proach mu­sic in rather a strange way and she was some­one who re­sponded pos­i­tively to that, rather than with be­wil­der­ment. Creatively, I fell in love with her.”

Some bril­liant artists, I point out, are dif­fi­cult to work with. What is Madonna like to work with? (They have col­lab­o­rated on sev­eral projects.) “Dif­fi­cult,” he says, then laughs. “The ul­ti­mate taskmas­ter. She turns up at the stu­dio first thing in the morn­ing, de­mand­ing, ‘Is work be­ing done?’ Then she leaves us work­ing very late in the stu­dio and tells us we can sleep when we’re dead.”

Born in Hamp­stead, north Lon­don, he was made head cho­ris­ter at St Paul’s Cathe­dral Choir School, be­fore read­ing English at Cam­bridge. “I didn’t spend enough time on my stud­ies be­cause I was busy with all sorts of musical en­deav­ours,” he says. “Not to men­tion cer­tain other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.”

His fa­ther, Ja­cob, died three years ago. “I’m fi­nally or­phaned,” says De Vries, and he isn’t jok­ing. Ja­cob was a pro­fes­sional singer who later built a sports spon­sor­ship busi­ness and ran clas­si­cal mu­sic festivals. Af­ter univer­sity De Vries played key­board in 1980s band the Blow Mon­keys, then worked as a stu­dio mu­si­cian for An­nie Len­nox, Tina Turner, U2 and oth­ers. One day, in the mid-90s, he and his fel­low pro­ducer Nellee Hooper re­ceived a phone call from Aus­tralia.

“It was a film di­rec­tor called Baz Luhrmann,” says De Vries. “He told us he liked our work and wanted to ar­range a meet­ing. He took us out for din­ner in Lon­don and pitched us an idea: mod­ernising Shake­speare for the MTV gen­er­a­tion, keep­ing the orig­i­nal lan­guage.

“It seemed im­pos­si­ble that some­thing like that could ever work, but I knew it was a good op­por­tu­nity. Nellee told Baz he wasn’t sure about the concept, but I kicked him un­der the ta­ble and rasped, ‘Yes, you are’.”

Romeo + Juliet turned out to be a mas­ter­piece. The 1996 film es­tab­lished Leonardo Di­Caprio as a star and won De Vries the first of his two BAFTAs. He worked with Luhrmann again on 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which, he says, “broke the flood­wa­ters for mu­si­cals and made them fash­ion­able again for the first time in years”.

Now, he be­lieves, “La La Land is go­ing to be a sim­i­lar shot in the arm. At ev­ery party I go to these days I meet some­one who tells me air­ily they’re mak­ing a musical next.” He pauses, then says with a chuckle: “You wouldn’t ut­ter those words lightly if you’d ever made one.”

Ryan Gosling at the piano in La La Land; ex­ec­u­tive mu­sic di­rec­tor Mar­ius De Vries, left

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