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
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