Ryan Gosling meets my gaze across a long table, resplendent in a dark blazer next to his La La Land director Damien Chazelle on a warm afternoon in Toronto. “Well,” he offers, “you look like the pillar of strength.”
I’ve just seen their film, a modern day Technicolor love story inspired by the great movie musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And I’ve just informed them that the marvel of a movie-musical left me utterly devastated, reduced to a pile of cathartic tears in the darkened silence of an empty theater.
La La Land stars Gosling and Emma Stone as aspirational young Angelenos in love. He’s a jazz musician; she’s a struggling actress. Boy meets girl and fantasies and hopes and dreams come soft-shoeing into their lives, buoyed by sweet original songs that give voice to these lovebirds’ emotions.
The film is heavily influenced by Jacques Demy’s bittersweet French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born—two Hollywood musicals unafraid to peel back the curtain on showbiz lives and loves so that the rest of us may learn from them. It dazzled at Venice, charmed at Telluride, makes its North American premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival, and is already expected to factor hugely into this year’s Oscars race in multiple categories.
Rhode Island native Chazelle started writing the script more than five years ago, inspired by his own whirlwind love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. “I grew up on the East Coast, and to me L.A. was Speed and Volcano and The Terminator,” he laughs. “It was just this really scary place because I’d never been there before. It was not a place I’d ever thought I’d live in. And it wasn’t love at first sight. I definitely love it now. But I wanted to try to present this film and the city as both something that brings people together and tears people apart. Inspires dreams and crushes them—and maybe re-inspires them. The city is both villain and hero.”
Los Angeles has always been a city of misfit dreamers, always more so in the movies. In La La Land she plays host to Stone’s Mia, an effervescent wannabe actress who works as a barista on a studio lot and loves the magic of the movies, and Gosling’s Sebastian, a gifted but acerbic pianist who loves jazz but hates people. They meet-cute and fight their prickly attraction one spring, their true feelings spilling over into song and dance during one exquisitely-staged hilltop musical duet. By summer they’re full-on head over heels in love—but alas, La La Land reminds us, seasons change.
Gosling and Stone sparkle together onscreen, and he dances with a particularly commanding sense of Gene Kelly grace. Perhaps all that training as a kid singing and dancing his way into the hearts of Disney ’tweens with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Xtina, and Britney, helped?
“Maybe,” he smiled. “’90s hip-hop is a little different than tap and waltz…”
“We did have a ‘90s hip-hop number,” joked Chazelle, “but it’s on the cutting room floor.”
La La Land’s memorably dreamy hilltop number, while evocative of the great MGM musicals, does something daring for the film musical form—a genre that dominated box office once upon a time in American pop culture. Like other numbers in La La Land, Mia and Seb’s first impromptu song and dance flows naturally from their emotional states—a device that may appear to be replicating the formula of olde, but here rather subtly pushes the form forward.
“The Fred and Ginger-style dance on the hilltop that we did was sort of designed that way, with banter, some of which was improvised, to singing on top of the music, to moving in tandem with the music but not quite dancing, to dancing in the same shot without cutting back,” said Chazelle. “If you trace a continuum like that hopefully you help cut against the modern audience’s sense of a gear shift when a musical number starts.”
There’s a perception of earnestness in trying to put a film musical over to the masses in the year 2016, in an age of social media and schadenfreude, and an election year like the one we’ve seen so far. Chazelle made his directorial debut with the jazz drama Whiplash and has shown himself to be keenly attuned to the syncopations of film, music, and the heart-stopping drama that can come when they play off one another just so.
He and Gosling chuckle at the notion of debuting their romantic ode to lovers and dreamers in a time of panic over GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, in the lead-up to November’s election. Where Umbrellas of Cherbourg mined its gut-wrenching emotional power from the melancholy of a faded forever love, La La Land acknowledges the agonies of love but also, crucially, the acceptance of an unknowable future.
“You don’t think about the real world context that you’d be in, you’d never really know—how bad things could get, I couldn’t have predicted,” Chazelle joked. “It’s funny because I don’t really think of myself as an optimist, so it’s weird in my mind to think of myself as having made a hopeful movie.”
“What I do know about myself and what I love in movies is that kind of unbridled romanticism, unbridled emotion. Movies meant for the big screen. That idea of creating overwhelming emotions with music and color and images on a big screen—the sort of simple idea of what movies, and only movies, can do. That was at the heart of what I wanted this to be. So maybe now in the context of today that seems counter to the real world.”
Chazelle, 31, and Gosling, 35, share an easy rapport. I ask if they’re romantics at heart, and if that goes hand in hand with unbridled optimism. “Things going badly can be very romantic,” Chazelle quips.
Gosling turns toward his director. “But you’re not very cynical,” he quietly observes. “One thing I admire about Damien is that as ambitious as he is, and as ambitious as this project was, he still has a very grounded sense of his own limitations, the limitations of his crew, and the limitations of the actors. There was never a sense of, I’m going through the eye of the needle and you’re either with me or against me—it was always a very grounded approach to something that was a pretty big undertaking.”
He considered what the takeaway should be from Seb’s journey from frustrated artist to where he ends up in the film’s stunner of a coda.
“The cynicism in the film kind of comes from my character,” he says. “He’s the most cynical of all of them, and in a way he’s on the verge of becoming a very bitter person because of all the rejection and failure that he’s experienced. This love saves him from that. This romance. This person. This romantic experience that he has keeps him from going down that road and becoming a very bad version of himself.”
For Chazelle, whose leads are both artists emboldening each another not just to leap for love, but in pursuit of their dreams, La La Land is a reminder of the East Coast kid who picked up and headed for Tinseltown eight years ago.
“I moved to L.A. and I wanted to make art, to make movies in my case,” he said. “I found it a really lonely movie for a while and kind of grew to fall in love with it more than love at first sight. I think about that, the sort of struggles the characters go through of trying to reconcile who they want to be as artists with who they need to be as people. And yeah, art can be this monomaniacal pursuit, and to reconcile that with another person is its own kind of struggle. To me the film reflects a lot of trying to find that balance.”