How Damien Chazelle Pulled Off the Big, Bold Musical ‘La La Land’

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “We were making three pieces of art at once: a normal movie, an album of music and a dance piece,” filmmaker says

This story first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Over the last couple of decades, Hollywood has viewed the musical as something to be solved. Today’s audiences, the reasoning goes, can’t handle characters suddenly breaking into song–there has to be a reason, a cinematic excuse for them to do so.

In “Chicago,” the musical numbers were the fantasies of its characters; in “Once,” the characters were aspiring musicians, and in most cases the performances were what they’d be doing in real life. “Dreamgirls” tried to have it both ways, with less success, while “Les Miserables'” heightened theatricality was occasionally thrilling and just as often off-putting.

And now there’s “La La Land,” in which writer-director Damien Chazelle shows not the slightest interest in viewing the musical as something to be solved. Instead, he embraces the form from the opening moments, in which a Los Angeles traffic jam becomes the setting for an exuberant song-and-dance number on a gridlocked freeway connector ramp.

Damien Chazelle, La La Land“The intention was to do a full-fledged, breaking-the-diegesis musical without any apology,” Chazelle said. “I was very aware that we were going to be pulling from models and forms that were many decades old — and so the challenge right from the outset was, ‘Can you do a musical that is as unapologetic as the musicals from what we would consider a, quote, more innocent time, from Hollywood’s Golden Age?

“Can you do something that’s as earnest and straightforward about being a musical as those musicals were, but still make a movie that’s set in today’s world, that speaks to today and updates the genre rather than just regresses?'”

Well yes, you can. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as aspiring artists (she’s an actress, he’s a jazz pianist) who meet in Los Angeles, “La La Land” has the old-Hollywood shine of “The Artist” and the how’d-they-do-that? complexity of “Birdman” — and it’s not hard to figure out where that combination puts it in the Oscar race.

Inspired both by the Hollywood musicals of the Golden Age and by Jacques Demy’s French musicals of the ’60s, particularly “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” the film is a huge step up for the director whose last feature was the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” which moved to a musical pulse but was nowhere near this ambitious.

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Chazelle said that he and his composer friend Justin Hurwitz had a strong sense of how they wanted to make a musical since their days at Harvard. They approached “La La Land” as an extension of their earlier experiments with the form, which included student films and the indie feature “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”

“We had our own rules about how a musical should work,” he said, “and we tried to map those genre conventions onto Los Angeles, and onto a more encompassing love story not just about these two people, but about the city and the idea of being an artist in the city.”

And what were their rules for musicals? One was, “Only have a musical number if it’s emotionally justified, if it can’t be done with dialogue.” Another was, “The style of each musical number and the style of dance has to depend on the character.” A third was, “The overall style should be a little bit French New Wave, a little bit American jazz, a little bit
American songbook, all orchestrated in a very lush, 90-piece orchestra kind of way.”

And there were others: “The music has to be acoustic, with real people playing it … The vocals should be naturalistic … The transitions from dialogue to songs should be as seamless as possible …. ” The rules were not ironclad, Chazelle added, “but the musical should be one continuous state of being.”

La La Land

Chazelle realized the difficulty of what he was trying to pull off on “La La Land” in preproduction, which was far more complicated than he had expected. “Prep was a beast,” he said.

“We were kind of making three pieces of art at once: a normal movie, a full album of music and a ballet or dance piece. But each one of those things needs to be completely dependent on the other. Prep was an ongoing, never-ending dialogue between all the different departments, and it was hard because we were trying to do big, technically precise musical numbers on real locations instead of CG soundstages. But if prep was harder than I expected it to be, shooting was more fun than I expected.”

Some have speculated that the presidential election has made “La La Land” the right movie at the right time, a piece of escapist entertainment at a point when people desperately need to escape. But there is a sadness and darkness in the film along with its dazzle: Chazelle gives you the delicious fantasy you crave, but he also wants you to recognize it as a fantasy. And that might make his movie an escapist throwback that also manages to be clear-eyed and current.

La La Land

So does he consider it escapist, or not? “I go back and forth on that,” he said. “Certainly, there is that old-fashioned idea of movie-movies–I love the grandeur and fun, and it feels very escapist. But it’s true that at the same time, I respond to the Jacques Demy musicals that took that model and toned it down, turned it inward and made it more melancholy.

“So I love the idea of a musical that embraces the full joyfulness of the old Hollywood musicals, but still acknowledges that things in life don’t always work out the way they do in the old movies, that things in life are messier and more complicated.”

He paused. “Maybe I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I think that even escapist movies offer you some kind of prism through which to think back to your own life. It’s not an escape in the sense that you can turn your brain off. I think of it as more that you put on a different pair of glasses that give you a new perspective on your own world.

Click here to read more of TheWrap Magazine’s Oscars Issue. 

OscarWrap Annette Bening cover