EVER since La La Land premiered in Venice, Damien Chazelle’s jazzy update on 1930s musicals, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a kind of latterday Fred and Ginger, has proved hard to resist.
The film has gone on to become the Oscar frontrunner and is up for seven Golden Globes on Sunday.
It might seem unusual that a hip young director should be hellbent on creating an old fashioned musical yet writer-director Chazelle is a rare talent who just thinks French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy is the bees knees.
“Demy’s probably the single biggest influence not just on this movie but on everything I’ve done or wanted to do,” admits Chazelle, who references Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Catherine Deneuve (particularly the ending), as well as Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and Top Hat with Fred and Ginge.
“Demy was the only one to try to combine emotions, so the idea was to take the old musical but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out.”
Chazelle had written his Los Angeles-set romance about a struggling jazz pianist and actress four years before he made his smash hit Whiplash, which drew on his tortured experience as a jazz drummer. He’d also written other things that have never been made and says performing music had been a big part of his life growing up and into his 20s.
“For many reasons I just wasn’t good enough,” the 31-year-old admits. “I remember every rejection letter I ever got and that works its way into any screenplay I write. I try to make all my movies as personal as possible.”
Of course La La Land had been one of those rejections. Musicals had been deemed dead in the water by the major studios and too expensive for everyone else, so he went ahead with the $3.3 million Whiplash instead.
Whiplash opened Sundance to what has become the usual Chazelle euphoria. It injected a new zest into the careers of Miles Teller and JK Simmons, who won the supporting actor Oscar, with the film receiving five nominations in all.
The US$30 million La La Land then received the green light, though as Chazelle now notes, “It was still a big gamble”.
As with Whiplash and his first (thesis) film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (which featured jazz and tap dancing), Chazelle collaborated with composer Justin Hurwitz, writing the screenplay at the same time as his old Harvard roommate created the music.
Simmons returned for a smaller similarly gruff role as the man who sacks Sebastian for playing jazz in his bar, but the music-obsessed Teller, who was originally to play the lead, reportedly wanted too much money and Chazelle replaced him with Gosling.
When Emma Watson dropped out to play the lead in the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, Emma Stone signed on. After partnering Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad, their chemistry is palpable.
“I knew Ryan could sing and dance but we had to learn to ballroom dance together,” Stone notes wryly in her deep husky tones. “Once you’ve learned to ballroom dance with somebody you’ve learned everything you need to know!”
Stone’s journey to Hollywood had been decidedly less bumpy than Chazelle’s. Though the Arizona native had her moments after she arrived in Los Angeles at age 15 to be an actress.
“I have a few humiliating audition stories,” she admits. “There are so many different types of people who can crush your dreams or help them come true. It never quite got to the point for me where I might pack it in, yet I don’t feel I was ever quite as brave as Mia [her character] is in putting herself out there in that way. Mia feels that there’s something special inside her, but she doesn’t quite know what it is.
““It was exciting taking her into this musical world where you can suddenly spin down the street or burst into song.”
Having just starred as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, the actress came to the production ready to warble.
“I saw Les Mis when I was eight on stage so bursting into song had always been a dream of mine,” she confesses.
As with Stone and Gosling the pairing of Gosling and Chazelle proved effective as both are intense, slightly old fashioned and almost fanatically dedicated to getting things right.
“When I first met Damien we didn’t really meet about this movie,” Gosling recalls. “He just talked about how he wanted to make films that he wanted to see in the theatre with an audience — and not something you could watch on your iPhone. He was dreaming very big and it was very exciting.”
Well aware that he had to meet Chazelle’s high standards, Gosling studied piano for three months. Chazelle had planned on hiring a pianist double but realised there was no need.
Gosling’s proficiency even stunned 10-time Grammy Award winner John Legend, who plays a mainstream jazz performer who recruits Sebastian to play in his band.
“I was kind of jealous about how fast Ryan learned to be awesome at playing piano,” Legend says. I’ve been playing since I was four.”
“I always like the opportunity to learn a new skill or refine one,” Gosling admits. “We had wonderful coaches and really beautiful music to do it to. I’ve now played the theme more times than I can say but I never get sick of it.”
Legend is no slouch in the acting department either, and impresses in his first speaking role in a movie.
“I felt like I understood Sebastian a lot because I’ve been around musicians my whole life and I understand those who are more pure and bound to tradition and don’t want to sell out,” Legend says, referring to Gosling’s Sebastian character. “I’m kind of like a sellout in some ways,” he chuckles heartily, “because you know, I’ve done ok.”
Legend may be dismissive of his acting ability, feeling a little like an interloper, yet Gosling sings his praises.
“That wonderful speech John has in the middle of the film about pushing the art form forward versus selling out, he improvised that whole speech and it’s beautiful.”