La La Land is a musical tonic for the times

La La Land kicks new life into the Hollywood musical, offering a heaven-sent escape from the new America
La La Land. (TIFF)
La La Land. (TIFF)
La La Land. (TIFF)

One of the many things that changed overnight after the American election is the way we’ll watch movies. As Hollywood lays its final offerings on the Oscar altar, films that were made long before the election may now look very different. That’s most obviously true of movies built around liberal issues of race or gender, such as Moonlight, The Birth of a Nation, Loving, Jackie, Hidden Figures and Miss Sloane. But even an escapist romance may have a different kind of emotional impact now that there is so much more to escape from.

Among the year’s Oscar contenders, no romance soars higher than the musical La La Land. It’s at once freshly contemporary and old-fashioned. Pairing Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling, and set in a candy-coloured Los Angeles, it evokes warm nostalgia for an age of innocence circa Singin’ in the Rain—and now for an age of innocence circa last September, when La La Land won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a Donald Trump presidency was still just a crude joke. If only our problems could be danced away with a graceful pivot around a lamppost.

La La Land is a showbiz fable about two performers who fall in love while struggling to make art in a culture ruled by commercial formula. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works as a barista on a studio lot when not racing off to be humiliated at auditions. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a virtuoso jazz pianist who refuses to sell out his talent for mainstream success. Now that our world has been thrown off its axis by a grotesque mutation of showbiz ambition into political power, this tale of two lovers holding out for truth and beauty, nuance and complexity seems heaven-sent.

Rejuvenating two tired genres, the romcom and the musical, La La Land amounts to an extravagant and improbable act of resistance against Hollywood convention. Shot in Cinemascope on the near-extinct medium of 35-mm film, it frames a thoroughly modern love story against a sublime ode to classic cinema. What’s all the more remarkable is that it comes from someone so young: 31-year-old American writer-director Damien Chazelle, whose career taken off as a showbiz fable in its own right.

Chazelle (left) wrote La La Land years ago with Gosling and Stone (right) in mind; only after Whiplash’s success did he get to make the film he’d always wanted. (Miguel Aguilar/PacificCoastNews)
Chazelle (left) wrote La La Land years ago with Gosling and Stone (right) in mind; only after Whiplash’s success did he get to make the film he’d always wanted. (Miguel Aguilar/PacificCoastNews)

I first glimpsed Chazelle at the 2014 Cannes premiere of his second feature, Whiplash, about an embattled music student. With the last beat of the drum solo that ends that film, the entire audience shot to attention as if their chairs were electrified and treated Chazelle to an epic standing ovation. At a party in Cannes, he had his first encounter with Ryan Gosling—“I was just a gob-smacked kid shaking his hand and trying not to embarrass myself.” Before long they were having dinner. “He’s this Gene Kelly and Busby Berkeley worshipper and loves the old musicals,” says Chazelle, “so we just geeked out—initially not thinking anything would come of it.” Whiplash would go on to receive five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Not bad for a movie that the director had cooked up as a calling-card project, so he could get his foot in the door and make La La Land. “Not to sound crass about it, but I wrote Whiplash almost out of frustration,” he said in an interview after La La Land’s Toronto premiere. “How can I write something that is not a goddam huge musical? A small movie that I can do for not a lot of money, and hopefully people will see it and they’ll let me do the huge, giant musical.”

Boyish and bright-eyed with curly dark hair, Chazelle is polite, intense and talks fast, as if afraid of wasting your time. Nothing about him suggests he’s been spoiled by his success. Born in Rhode Island to an American mother and French father, who are both professors, he trained as a jazz drummer (like the exasperated hero of Whiplash), then let go of that dream to study film at Harvard University. His college roommate, composer Justin Hurwitz, would create the music for both Whiplash and La La Land. Their collaboration began with a thesis film Chazelle directed in 2009, a black-and-white vérité musical called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. For a movie with no distribution, it got noticed by some serious critics. “It’s amateurish in the best sense, and it radiates cinephilia,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. “No movie I’ve seen this year has given me more joy.”

The bracing mix of realism and fantasy in La La Land has its roots in that first student project. His Harvard film program, he says, “was all documentary, strict vérité, Frederick Wiseman style. Going out in the streets with a 16-mm camera then talking old musicals with my roommate started that feeling that there had to be some way of uniting the two, trying to infuse the musicals we love with a contemporary realism. That was the germ of the whole idea.”

There’s not a trace of documentary style in the sumptuous palette of La La Land, but an authenticity underlies the artifice. Shooting on film magazines that had to be reloaded after 10 minutes, Chazelle tried to capture scenes in single, fluid takes. He drew inspiration from the ’60s confections of French director Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) but crafted dreamlike scenarios out of real locations in Los Angeles as we’ve never seen that city before. The movie’s one massive production number occurs before the opening credits. As boy meets girl amid gridlock on an elevated L.A. freeway, singers and dancers of every ethnicity jive and jump over cars on what is clearly not a set—we can see traffic moving below.

While conjuring the rapture of a traditional musical, Chazelle subverts the formula. The story doesn’t go where you’d expect. And for long stretches no one breaks into song. Instead Stone and Gosling have room to argue about art and life in relationship scenes that are meatier than the usual rom-com fare. Both the magic and the realism are grounded in the volatile chemistry of these two bona fide movie stars, who seemed made for each other ever since their first bad date in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. “During the five or six years it took to make the movie,” says Chazelle, “casting went through all kinds of ups and downs and permutations. Ryan and Emma were at the tail end of that, the irony being that they were the two people in mind when I was writing it. I just didn’t think it was realistic. They were already big stars and I was nothing. They were the models, and I had to find the bargain-basement versions.”

Chazelle recruited Stone when she was performing Cabaret on Broadway. She had already proven she could sing, but casting Gosling as a virtuoso piano player was a bigger gamble. “He’s musically fluent,” says the director. “He has a band [Dead Man’s Bones]. So thank God we weren’t starting with a total beginner. But when it comes to jazz piano we might as well have been.” Right after reading the script, Gosling studied piano intensely for the six months before shooting began. “He was a novice on keys, but he just started working his ass off,” recalls Chazelle. “It paid off. I’d prepared to have a piano double, and we wound up doing literally zero of that. Every single shot of him playing, even close-ups of hands, was Ryan.” As actor and piano man, Gosling comes across as the quintessential cool Canadian. A large part of his charm is that he never appears to be breaking a sweat. “It’s what’s underrated about that kind of acting,” says Chazelle. “The same thing with the old Hollywood icons—Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant—certain kinds of actors make it seem completely effortless.”

But it is Stone’s performance that unleashes the film’s emotional force, with a range that seems as bottomless as her green saucer eyes. She first hesitated to take the part, and Gosling helped talk her into it. “He helped get her there as much as I did,” says Chazelle. “One thing I really wanted from Emma is a vulnerability we hadn’t seen before. I knew she had it in her. We’ve seen the comedy and the charm, but there needed to be a real pathos to this character.” Stone was a working-class kid who had her own struggles on the road to stardom, so “the character was close to her heart, and her experiences,” adds the director. “That was such a joy filming: the moments where she would let the veil of charm fall and you would just see this exposed human being.”

In a song from the movie called “Audition,” Stone sings these fragile sentiments: “Here’s to the ones who dream / foolish as they may seem / here’s to the hearts that ache / here’s to the mess we make.” In the end, La La Land’s glamorous bubble of romance is bittersweet. But now that the American Dream is on life support—and the world’s most famous audition contestant holds court in a gilded penthouse—vulnerability may be the ultimate luxury.