By Joe McGovern
Updated December 30, 2015 at 08:23 PM EST

The new film from Whiplash wunderkind Damien Chazelle takes place far away from the bloody drumsticks and sadomasochism of a New York City music conservatory. La La Land, starring Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad comrades Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is a musical set in modern-day Los Angeles. The title, a common pejorative for the Southern California metropolis, is not at all intended as snark — as is evident from this marvelously old-fashioned moment of song and dance in the film, where we see a musician (played by Gosling) and a struggling actress (Stone) express their blossoming love for each other via a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-inspired waltz.

“There’s an incredible romanticism in L.A. that you don’t always see when you’re stuck in traffic on the 405,” says Chazelle, who shot this scene during a September sunset in Griffith Park. “I wanted to make a big love letter to the city and focus on that push and pull that all young artists experience, between dreams and reality, which old Hollywood musicals are so good at expressing. I just love the idea of a whole emotional arc told purely visually and musically. And it’s a city that’s so filled with dreamers, most of whom won’t make it. I think there’s something poetic about that.”

Chazelle, 30, cites one of Astaire and Rogers’ most enchanting dance sequences, one set during a summer storm in 1935’s Top Hat, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain),” as a specific reference point. Yet he also gives props to Thom Andersen’s extraordinary Los Angeles Plays Itself, a 2003 documentary, available now on Netflix. “I absolutely adore that film,” he says. “L.A. is weirdly the most filmed city in the world because the movie industry has been there forever, but it’s one of the least physical cities in movies. It doesn’t have a specific place in cinema the way that New York or Paris does. Which is why everyone has their own idea of L.A., and many are not the most pleasant ideas. But if treated the right way, L.A. is can definitely hold its own as a romantic playground.”

La La Land reunites Chazelle with Whiplash Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, who has a small role as someone in the life of Gosling’s character, and with that film’s editor, Tom Cross, who also took home a golden statuette. But the team’s goals this time were different, with Chazelle emphasizing longer, more fluid shots and an unhurried pace. “Whiplash was very much about the kinetic editing and images colliding against each other,” he says, “whereas this is about telling the story through camera and blocking. It’s a style which is more suited to the musical but I think also more romantic.”

While not a love story, Whiplash most certainly touched upon the drama that takes place when intense artistic dreams intersect with the challenges of living in the real world. Interestingly, Chazelle was himself a stymied young artist while writing La La Land. He’d been taking cracks at the screenplay since he was in college, and feeling blocked and dead-ended a few years ago, he shelved the script and vented some of his frustration…by writing and then directing Whiplash. “The two movies couldn’t be more tonally different,” he insists. “But they’re both about reconciling your dreams with the need to be human. La La Land is just much less angry about it.”

La La Land arrives in theaters on July 15.