While “La La Land,” opening locally Friday, owes a great deal to the golden age of the Hollywood musical (think “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and, perhaps most prominently, “An American in Paris”), keeping the film contemporary was always at the forefront of Chazelle’s mind. He used a classic plot — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actor, meets-cute with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz pianist, and love blossoms — but the story is very grounded in modern-day Los Angeles (the two first spark as she’s click-clicking her key fob, searching for her Prius).
“I was trying to make a case for [musicals’] continued relevance and urgency, that we could still use musicals,” says Chazelle, whose debut film, 2014’s “Whiplash,” about a driven jazz drummer and his sadistic teacher, was nominated for a best picture Oscar. “Real cities, real locations, realistic performances — just to make the case that our lives today don’t have to be as far removed from what those movies used to feel like.”
Making “La La Land” more palatable to a modern audience primarily came down to, well, the music. Justin Hurwitz composed the music, and the lyrics came from Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, who wrote the current Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen” (which had its debut at D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2015). The catch was finding the balance between the fantasy of the musical and the realism Chazelle wanted.
“There were a lot of head-banging-against-the-wall moments,” says Chazelle, 31. “It was hard to figure out when it was too musical-y and when it wasn’t musical-y enough — that balance between having stuff be technically accomplished enough that you bask in it, but not so removed from you that it feels like it was done for judges. We’d do one mix and it would sound way too Disney. We’d do another one and it would sound way too Broadway. We were literally switching out vocals weeks before delivering the film.”
All of this, just to get the people who don’t want to see the movie to see the movie.
“I made a jazz movie for people who claim to hate jazz,” Chazelle says. “I think there’s something fun in trying to preach to the skeptics. I guess I’m perhaps a naive believer in the power of movies to make you turn into a fan of everything.”
More film interviews from Kristen Page-Kirby