Director Damien Chazelle on the old Hollywood musicals that inspired ‘La La Land’

Studio 360

Set in modern-day Los Angeles, “La La Land” features Emma Stone in the role of an actress, and Ryan Gosling as a jazz musician, both struggling to make it. But at its heart, the film is also an homage to old Hollywood musicals.

On Sunday night, the film won ­­­­­­­six Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards, including for best director, best music and best actress. It didn't, however, snag best picture, as was mistakenly announced, then taken back midway through acceptance speeches. (That award went instead to "Moonlight.")

Damien Chazelle, 32, who wrote and directed “La La Land,” says he fell for the musical genre as a student of art film history at Harvard. Back then, he was studying and rewatching films like 1952’s “Singin' in the Rain,” and classics from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

“Suddenly, these movies that seemed very much like the epitome of Hollywood confection, of Hollywood fluff, suddenly seemed to me like these strange, audacious, experimental movies,” he says. “I became fascinated by an era in Hollywood where the studios opened up their coffers and let filmmakers make weird, avant-garde movies in mainstream packaging.”

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But for Chazelle, the appeal of old Hollywood musicals isn’t just their extravagance. (He made “La La Land” on a relatively modest, $30 million budget.)

“If you look at the Vincente Minnelli dream ballets, or if you look at a Busby Berkeley number, or you look at even some of the simpler musicals like a “Meet Me in St. Louis,” or certain Fred and Ginger movies,” he says, “the way in which they revel in pure cinema, where dialogue goes away, and it just becomes about telling a story or telling really just an emotion … through image and sound, is incredible.

One of Chazelle’s favorite movie musicals is “Top Hat” from 1935, with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and music by Irving Berlin. In a famous scene, Astaire sways with Rogers across a ballroom, singing — and dancing — “Cheek to Cheek.”

Chazelle calls the emotion in the scene “so much more sophisticated than people even give it credit for,” attributing it in part to stellar camera choreography. “It feels like it just flows seamlessly from real life,” he says. “You know, no matter how fake it seems, it is actually very natural.”

That contradiction intrigues him about musicals. “You go, ‘OK, well this kind of language seems like it belongs very much to … this utterly fantastical kind of world, and this very obvious set, where literally everything has to be designed to a T,’” he says. “And people break into song, which would never happen in real life.”

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He takes that juxtaposition a step further in “La La Land,” adding a layer of nostalgia to the musical form. The film’s story is contemporary, and it’s set against some real backdrops. And yet:

“At every level — whether it's the locations, the casting, the story, it was about what happens if you take these older musical forms and smash them with reality,” Chazelle says. “Down to little details like potholes on the street or gas spill stains on sidewalks. Or you know, when it comes to the story, just the mundane daily disappointments of life as a young artist in LA.”

But even Chazelle admits that, in many ways, the film is about learning there are limits to nostalgia. At one point, singer John Legend, as jazz musician Keith, tells Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian that “you’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

“That was a little bit the story of [Sebastian], but I guess it's a little bit of my story too, in the sense that I know I have it in me to be a sort of full-fledged nostalgist,” Chazelle says.

So viewers will find other influences throughout “La La Land,” as well. For instance, Chazelle spent a lot of time studying the “twist dance” scene in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” (which is decidedly not a musical). Many modern musicals try to fit in too many numbers, he says. “It should feel like a number should only come when there's no other recourse.”

For him, that’s where the “Pulp Fiction” scene — with Uma Thurman as a gangster’s wife and John Travolta as a hit man cajoled into dancing with her — gets the tension just right. “They really spend their time in just pure, unvarnished dialogue for many, many minutes before that dance happens,” he says.

And then comes the dance, which itself lasts several minutes. “And the thing about the dance is that exactly, you get to kind of revel in it,” he explains. “But you've earned the right to revel in it.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen. 

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