‘La La Land’ gets nostalgic for classic Hollywood musicals

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JOHN YANG: Finally tonight — Who would have thought? A movie musical, set in contemporary Los Angeles, and it’s become a commercial and critical hit.

Today, it was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying “Titanic” and “All About Eve” for the most nominations ever.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with the director of “La La Land,” who received two nominations himself, including best original screenplay.

This report is part of our ongoing coverage of awards for the 2016 movie season, Beyond the Red Carpet.

JEFFREY BROWN: The story itself is well-worn: two young performers striving to make it big in the land of the stars. But “La La Land” aims to take an old form, the movie musical, and give it renewed life and broader appeal, placing it firmly in the here and now.

In New York recently, 32-year-old writer/director Damien Chazelle told me it took six years to sell studios on the film.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE, Director, “La La Land”: Not just a musical, but an original musical, so you’re not even going to be familiar with the songs going in. We can’t even sell that.

Just everything about it seems like this could never possibly have an audience or make money.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is a film all about beating the odds. It stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist who thinks all the great music came from an earlier era and is stubbornly trying to bring it back, and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress struggling to land a role and wondering if she has what it takes.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Grew up with movies. Musicals, I kind of held at arm’s length for a while, as a kid. And then I sort of belatedly fell head over heels in love with them.

And I fell in love, specifically, with old Hollywood musicals and …

JEFFREY BROWN: Like such as?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Top Hat.”

So I think, as soon as I fell in love with those movies, I was thinking already about, how could you do something like that today?

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you hear in those films? What grabbed you, at whatever age you were?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: The reveling in what only movies can do, the sort of unbridled experimentation, the audacity, the privileging of emotion over anything else, the privileging of image and sound and telling a story that way, not just telling it through dialogue or through things that you could do in literature or in a play, but really just indulging in the possibilities of the medium.

I just felt like they were — musicals were the most liberating form for a filmmaker. The language of falling in love through dance, especially in a movie like “Top Hat” or a movie like “Swing Time,” a number like, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?” which is one of the early numbers in “Top Hat,” the bickering couple, where the dialogue is telling you that they’re not in love, but they start to kind of sing and they start to dance.

And the song and the dance is what tells you, oh, actually, there’s something underneath here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also working here with actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who are not known for singing and dancing.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes.

Part of the intention was to not have it be people who you had seen in a musical before, so it’s not a situation where you’re kind of sitting there waiting for them to break into song, you know?

I wanted to cast actors, first and foremost, and just people who would really flesh out these characters with the same amount of depth and complexity and truth as they would if there were no musical numbers in the movie at all to help the lifting. And then the numbers can kind of emerge out of the emotions that the actors have fleshed out.

And that was much more important to me than the technique of the steps or the notes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film is received some criticism for its portrayal of Gosling, a white man, trying to save a distinctly black art form, jazz.

Jazz is a longtime love of Chazelle’s. He first gained widespread attention in 2014 with “Whiplash,” about a young drummer who worships the greats and desperately wants to join them, and an abusive music professor who pushes him to the brink of insanity.

Chazelle himself was an aspiring jazz drummer in high school.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I love thinking about film as music, and how the two forms can speak to each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean, film as music?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Well, you know, that it’s not just about putting a camera on someone and — or on a couple of people and having them talk, and doing shot/reverse shot, and just sort of trying to passively tell a story.

It’s trying to — you’re trying to ultimately say things that words can’t say. And, sometimes, that can be done very simply. Other times, it’s done in very, I guess what you would call musical ways, thinking about rhythm and tempo, playing with the sequence of shots in an edit room, or trying to make the camera dance, trying to make the camera evoke a certain kind of melody or tempo.

JEFFREY BROWN: But also thinking about jazz and musicals not as, I don’t want to say dying art forms — I love both, but — and they thrive in some forms, but they’re not part of the popular culture.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re not sort of a mainstream, mass culture.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you’re clearly attracted to both.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I wonder what that says about you.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes, sometimes, I have felt a little bit like I was born, whatever, in the wrong …

JEFFREY BROWN: In the wrong era.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: The wrong era, yes, which, I think, at least Ryan Gosling’s character in this movie, he certainly — his character shares that viewpoint. And that was sort of personal.

In the story of the movie that Ryan Gosling’s character ultimately has to learn is that there are limits to that kind of nostalgia. So it’s not enough to, I think, just love something from the past and kind of encase it in amber and say, don’t touch, because that actually winds up — to a certain extent, it winds up aiding its demise.

If you want to actually help an art form or sort of contribute to it in some ways, you have to find a way to add something new. You have to update it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re very young. Where does the ambition come from to kind of bring back the musical, to think long term, over the arc of a career?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I guess I’m not entirely sure. The one thing I sort of have adopted for myself as some kind of mantra is just to try to make things that scare you a little bit, to try…

JEFFREY BROWN: Scare you?

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: Yes.

Once you have done something, don’t redo it, or don’t sort of stay completely in that box. Try to play around and try to keep pushing, and even if that means you fall on your face. But that’s kind of the only movie you really want to make, in a way, because, otherwise, what are you doing? It’s so much work to make a movie.

It’s so tiring, that it’s like, you might as well be doing something that is really testing you and that is really, if it works out, going to push the medium forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Damien Chazelle will vie for best director and “La La Land” for best film at the Academy Awards on February 26.

From New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JOHN YANG: Online — What does it take to write an Oscar-nominated song? We talk to “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz about creating the music that has a starring role in the movie.

And find all our coverage Beyond the Red Carpet with features on movies, directors and our picks of the best films of 2016. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

 

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