For a creative industry, Hollywood doesn’t exactly put creativity on a pedestal. Movies that aren’t reminiscent of other movies – or plays or books or comics – don’t usually get made, which is why for every imaginative film from a dreamer like Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze, there are dozens of reboots, sequels, remakes and origin stories.
So of course “La La Land” almost didn’t make it to the big screen. The musical is one of the most celebrated movies of the year and a shoo-in for a best-picture nomination come Oscar time, but it had one huge strike against it: originality.
It wasn’t based on a Broadway show, and no big-name composer was attached. It wasn’t a tentpole, meant to create a constellation of spinoffs.
“All of it was just completely unknown,” said Damien Chazelle, the writer-director who spent six years trying to bring his effervescent musical to the masses. “To me, that’s what would make a movie exciting, but in Hollywood right now, that’s what makes a movie unmakable.”
Say what you will about awards season, but the Oscars have one benefit for movie fans who don’t care for superheroes: Awards shows prompt studios to make movies that cater to adults. And yet, even the front-runners, as good as they are, aren’t always entirely fresh. Last year, of the eight best-picture nominees, five were based on books, one was a remake and two came from true stories, including the winner, “Spotlight,” about the investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Luckily for Chazelle, he’d already proved that the stories springing from his mind have the potential to find both commercial and critical success. The reason Lionsgate gave him the green light on “La La Land” is because he wrote and directed 2014’s “Whiplash,” which was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, and won three.
“La La Land” does nod nostalgically to musicals of yore – but a genre that peaked in the 1950s isn’t exactly a bankable one. The movie follows two struggling artists: Emma Stone’s Mia works at a coffee shop when she isn’t suffering through another demoralizing audition, and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz musician coming to terms with the fact that people don’t listen to his favorite type of music anymore. The two don’t get along at first. But pretty soon they’re waltzing while floating around a planetarium and tap-dancing in the Hollywood hills.
Stone is a big fan of musicals. During a recent visit to Washington, she gushed about some favorites, including the brightly colored Jacques Demy movies of the 1960s, which heavily influenced Chazelle.
“In the ones I really love, you can’t get to any other place without bursting into song, whether you’re so heartbroken you need to sing or you’re so hopeful that you have to sing or you’re so excited that you have to sing,” she said. “It’s almost like an animated movie where you watch these characters have these expressions that you’ve only ever had inside because you’re face isn’t made of rubber.”
After a pause, she added, “Well, mine is a little bit.” (Yes, the 28-year-old is just as charming and self-effacing in person.)
Musicals aren’t exactly a ubiquitous genre, so wholly original ones are nearly extinct, with the exception of Disney movies like “Frozen” and “Enchanted.” “Chicago,” “Les Miserables,” “Dreamgirls” and “Mamma Mia!” were all popular Broadway shows long before they became hit movies – and “Rock of Ages” and “Nine” were celebrated stage productions before they were box-office duds.
None of these had the vibe Chazelle was going for, though. He’s not interested in the technical razzle-dazzle or the idea of “putting on a number” so much as giving audiences a break from the constraints of real life.
“Breaking into a song is expressing a feeling in a way that normal movie grammar or normal reality wouldn’t let you,” he said.
Chazelle, 31, comes across a bit like an overgrown kid. He has a full head of unruly dark curls, and he stares at the table while answering questions. He fidgets a lot. But this is apparently what a mad cinematic genius looks like because, against all odds, his movie casts a powerful spell.
“La La Land” blends nostalgic and modern in ways that keep familiar scenes from feeling stale. The opening showstopper takes place on an L.A. freeway during a traffic jam, when a diverse mix of drivers ditch their cars to start singing and dancing in the street. Later, Sebastian and Mia channel Fred and Ginger with a tap duet at sunset. The observatory from “Rebel Without a Cause” makes a cameo, but so does A Flock of Seagulls, when Mia runs into Sebastian while he’s performing with an ’80s cover band.
Chazelle knew that the cultural references had the potential to give the audience whiplash, so he came up with ways to connect the dots. He made rules for how all of the scenes should be shot – with an active camera, but one that only moved when the characters did. He also made sure the characters’ personalities remained constant; they wouldn’t suddenly become more old-fashioned just because they were ballroom dancing.
It wasn’t always easy to make it all cohere. The logistics of directing can be a slog; most of it is “nuts-and-bolts problem-solving,” he said. But whenever Chazelle felt he was losing sight of what he wanted to do, he would come back to the music. Some nights, he would listen to Justin Hurwitz’s score while driving home, and looking out over L.A. while hearing the lush sounds of a 90-piece orchestra reminded him of the magical feeling he wanted to impart to the audience. Now he can hardly believe he’s pulled it off.
“I had my moments of frustration, but now I look back and I get what the red flags would be,” Chazelle said of the difficulty getting his movie financed. “There’s nothing quite like a musical that goes completely off the rails.”
There’s also nothing quite like a musical that doesn’t.