There were so many ways La La Land could have gone wrong. Damien Chazelle, who previously wrote and directed 2014’s Whiplash, wanted to whip up some Old Hollywood magic. Using 1950s CinemaScope lenses, he set out to create a modern-day musical — a love story of two 21st-century dreamers trying to make it in Los Angeles. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who wants to open his own club, and Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who decides to write her own role. The dramatic scenes needed to be as intimate as the best indie film, while the musical numbers had to take you back to the days of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. It could have been a disaster. Instead, it’s one of the most original and beautiful movies of the year.
“What’s so great about a musical is — when it works — the genre has the potential for emotion that’s unmatched by any other,” Chazelle, 31, says. “But when it doesn’t, there is nothing as embarrassing.”
It has taken six years and one Oscar-winning movie to get La La Land to the screen. Financing didn’t come through until Whiplash won three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, and put Chazelle on the map as a visionary new director.
Even with those bona fides, though, Chazelle still had to persuade his future stars to come along for the ride. And that proved to be an exercise in perseverance. Stone put the filmmaker through a dizzying courtship, peppering him with endless questions about his concept before she finally signed on. “I loved the idea and the ambition of it and Damien’s enthusiasm, but I was hesitant because of the tone,” Stone says. “He had to keep describing it up until we were shooting. It was months…. I was so annoying.”
Gosling’s concerns lay elsewhere. He worried that he couldn’t make the heightened reality of Chazelle’s musical numbers feel real, especially when the two leads float into the sky and dance among the stars inside L.A.’s Griffith Observatory. “Damien’s logic for all these fantastical sequences was ‘because they’re in love and that’s how love makes you feel,’ ” says Gosling. “It’s very hard to argue with that.”
Still, Stone and Gosling, who had played an onscreen couple twice before (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), didn’t leave anything to chance. Gosling says he studied piano for three months to execute an intricate jazz piece “without any sneaky edits.”
For her part, Stone channeled her early days in Hollywood, from the painful rejections to the really bleak days when the phone didn’t ring at all. “The memories of the bad auditions held less water than the stretches of time when I wasn’t being asked to audition at all,” she says. Because of this, she adds, the moment in the film when her character Mia “temporarily throws in the towel and moves home is the most visceral to me. I know the experience of not feeling seen or appreciated.”
The praise La La Land has received so far should make all those feelings disappear. The movie debuted to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and racked up more adulation from Toronto and Telluride crowds, including an impassioned endorsement from a festival competitor, Tom Hanks. Right now, it’s the movie to beat in the Best Picture race, and it’s no wonder. After this year, who couldn’t use a little song and dance?