By David Templeton
Last October, on opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF)—and months before La La Land was officially released in theaters—its writer-director, Damien Chazelle, was in Marin with his leading lady Emma Stone, and composer Justin Hurwitz. During a pre-screening press conference, Chazelle was asked about the Oscar potential for the film, a musical about artists in love in modern-day Los Angeles.
“Oh my god, I’m not even thinking about that!” he said with a laugh, sitting down for a few super-charged moments with his La La Land co-creators. Chazelle has been through the whole Oscar circus before, having seen his 2014 drama Whiplash earn five nominations (including a nod for his original screenplay), and winning three, including a trophy for supporting actor J.K. Simmons.
During his visit to the film festival, however, his primary hope was just that his new effort wouldn’t flop so enormously that he would never be allowed to make a movie again. After all, choosing a musical as his follow-up to Whiplash is exactly the kind of choice that often sidetracks careers in Hollywood, like Michael Cimino with Heaven’s Gate, or Francis Ford Coppola with One From the Heart, the latter of which was, after all, a musical.
“My heart has been pounding non-stop for weeks now,” Chazelle admitted. “I may not calm down till sometime next year.”
Well, it’s now officially “next year,” and it’s unlikely that he’s calmed down yet. Not only has La La Land turned out to be a box-office success, it’s received 14 Oscar nominations, tying Titanic and All About Eve for most noms ever given to a single film. All three of the artists seated at the table last October have been nominated as well. Clearly, La La Land has struck a mainstream nerve. Ironically, the first question tossed out to Chazelle, Stone and Hurwitz on opening night of the MVFF was to ask whether the film contained any subversive elements appropriate to such a highly politicized time in America.
“Well, I don’t know about ‘subversive,’” Chazelle said with a laugh, “but I do think that musicals are so fascinating because they have a way of sneaking up on you. A musical can slip things through that otherwise might not work in a different kind of movie. I think about the Jacques Demy movies, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Young Girls of Rochefort, movies that talked about the way things were in France at the time. They said things that other movies couldn’t have gotten away with.”
“I love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” added Stone. “Great movie.”
“Or movies like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!,” Chazelle continued, in reference to the pre-Code Al Jolson film about homeless people living in the shadow of extreme wealth. “There were some overtly proletariat musicals in the 1930s, during the Great Depression,” he says. “I love that tradition of slipping strong political subtext into movies people will still go to, because they want to hear the music and watch the dancing.
“In La La Land, I don’t think there is any intentional political subtext,” he mused, “which isn’t to say it isn’t there anyway.”
“Hope and love are political,” suggested Hurwitz, who has been nominated for his score, and for his contributions to the songs “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”
“Absolutely,” agreed Chazelle. “I always think there’s a place for hopefulness and love, and for celebrating art for art’s sake. It’s the idea that art shouldn’t always have to have a ‘function,’ but should exist as an abstract thing, in the same way that love is an abstract thing, that beauty is an abstract thing. And there should be a place for love, and freedom, and hope, at all times—and there should be a place for art at all times. If La La Land contains any sort of message, I think that’s it, that there’s always a place for love, and for art, and for beauty, and that those things are worth noticing, and worth fighting for, whenever the world gets crazy.”
Stone interjected that musicals, and movies in general, have always been a source of calm and healing for her. As a girl, she had crippling anxiety attacks, but acting always saw her through.
“Yeah, I used to have very, very horrible anxiety,” Stone said. “It first hit me when I was seven years old. Fortunately, I’d already done a school play before that, and I always remembered what that felt like, how good it felt to be on stage.
“It’s like when a very shy kid joins the debate team, and all of a sudden, a very different kid emerges,” she continued. “That’s what acting did for me. It gave me a place to put all that anxiety and emotion. It gave my life a purpose, and that hopefulness—and the friends I made through theater—gave me something very therapeutic and healing.
“Now that it’s my job, now that it’s something I do all the time … my relationship to acting has deepened. It’s more than just a comfort thing, now. But it is that, too, even when it forces me into really uncomfortable places. There’s still always joy in it. And I think that joy is contagious.”
“I’m actually inspired by the future of musicals,” Hurwitz said. “I think musicals could be a very important part of whatever is coming.” Admitting that he was inspired by musicals along the lines of Singin’ in the Rain, Hurwitz said the big challenge of La La Land was to be inspired by the older movies, but also make room for something new and a little bit fresh.
“On my end,” he said, “my dream was to make music that would not sound old-fashioned, that would sound like its own thing. I think, generally, the movie does feel contemporary, while still feeling connected, in its DNA, to some of those other movies.”
“Back to the idea of musicals being subversive,” Chazelle said. “One way that might be true, to a degree, is that all movies are collaborative, right? But I think musicals, just by necessity, are even more so. That’s why so many musicals are about people coming together to put on a show. You get into that ‘hey-let’s-do-this-together’ mindset in a really big way when you are doing a musical.
“Maybe that’s the real message of musicals,” he added. “We have to work together. And we can work together, and working together we can do some pretty impossible things.”