Showbiz Dreams Collide With Reality In 'La La Land'

Dec 9, 2016
Originally published on December 9, 2016 6:33 pm

Damien Chazelle's new movie, La La Land, is very different from his first one, Whiplash — which was about a jazz drummer and his abusive mentor.

La La Land is also about struggle and jazz, but instead of dimly lit rooms and a grey color palette, it's a brightly colored modern musical.

"I wanted this movie to be very unapologetic about being a musical," Chazelle tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "Just try to return to that simpler idea that I think really was at the core of the early '30s, '40s, '50s musicals which is that, if you feel enough, you break into song."

So Chazelle's characters sing and dance their way through present-day Los Angeles, traffic-jammed freeways and all. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play the two lovers at the heart of the movie — each of them trying to reconcile their showbiz dreams with reality.

Gosling's Sebastian, a traditional jazz pianist, has to join a band with more pop sensibilities to make ends meet. Stone's Mia is a disheartened aspiring actress; she moved to LA for her big break, and still hasn't found it after six years and countless auditions.


Interview Highlights

On why it's a personal project for him

It's funny how those first, I'd say, five years or so in Los Angeles, where I remember being very excited the first time I got any kind of amount of money at all to do like a writing for hire ... the idea of having any kind of entryway into making movies was very exciting to me. But it sort of felt, the entire time, like that's as far as I was going to get. And what I was really doing was spending most of my time writing scripts of movies that I dreamed of one day making. I wanted in this movie, hopefully to say something about that state of mind.

As a kid, kind of anything seems possible — it's all kind of far off, so you just sort of enjoy the dream. And then it becomes somewhat a little more difficult to handle when you have to start compromising, when you have to start doing things that adults do ... that was something that, especially with Ryan's character in the movie, that was personal.

On an argument two characters have about the state of jazz

The thing with jazz is that jazz is — and in some ways always will remain — a modern music. That's why there's a moment in the movie when Ryan's character makes an argument earlier that jazz is dying. Which I don't entirely agree with, actually ... but I think Ryan is talking about a specific kind of jazz, a specific ... somewhat in his mind, encased in amber type of jazz that was played in the jazz clubs or on the big band stages in the '30s, '40s, '50s, maybe into the '60s ... and then John Legend's character comes from a completely other side of the equation.

On his hopes for the movie

I guess I hoped with this movie, both with the jazz within it, but also just with the entire approach to the movie, that it would have a little bit of old and new in it ... just that idea that sometimes it's okay to adapt to modernity a little bit. I think in some way, that's what the characters learn a bit. That you have to preserve what you believe in, you can't compromise too much, but sometimes it's not compromise. Sometimes it's a way to push something forward.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Writer and director Damien Chazelle's new movie "La La Land" is very different from his first one, "Whiplash." That was about a jazz drummer's struggles with his abusive mentor. Now, "La La Land" is also about struggle and jazz. But instead of dimly-lit rooms and a gray color palette, it's a neon-bright musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER DAY OF SUN")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Should they let you down, it's another day of - get up off the ground. It's another day of - morning rolls around and it's another day of sun.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I wanted this movie to be very unapologetic about being a musical and just try to return to that simpler idea that I think really was at the core of the early '30s, '40s, '50s musicals, which is that if you feel enough, you break in a song. If you're in love enough or happy enough or sad enough, then you break into a number. And that's - to me that's what the genre hinges on and all you really need.

CORNISH: His characters sing and dance their way through present day Los Angeles, traffic jammed freeways and all. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play the two lovers at the heart of the movie, each balancing their showbiz dreams with reality. Gosling's Sebastian is a traditional jazz pianist who asked to join a band with more pop sensibilities to make ends meet. In Chazelle's film, Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress who still hasn't found her big break after six years and countless auditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

EMMA STONE: (As Mia) Because maybe I'm not good enough.

RYAN GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Yes, you are.

STONE: (As Mia) No. No, maybe I'm not.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) Yes, you are.

STONE: (As Mia) Maybe I'm not.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) You are.

STONE: (As Mia) Maybe I'm not.

GOSLING: (As Sebastian) You are.

STONE: (As Mia) Maybe I'm one of those people that has always wanted to do it, but it's like a pipe dream for me, you know? And then you said it, you change your dreams and then you grow up.

CORNISH: You change your dreams and then you grow up. That was a tough line to hear I think probably for a lot of creative types in the audience.

CHAZELLE: It's a line that, you know, I think floated through my mind a lot when I was, you know, first moving to LA. It's funny how those first - I'd say five years or so in Los Angeles where, you know, I remember being very excited the first time I got any kind of amount of money at all to do, like, a writing-for-hire rewrite job on, like, a script. You know, just the idea of having any kind of entryway into making movies was very exciting to me. But it sort of felt the entire time like that's as far as I was going to get. And what I was really doing was spending most of my time writing scripts of movies that I dreamed of one day making.

You know, I wanted in this movie hopefully to say something about that state of mind, you know, of being in a city like LA, this sort of dream factory city, living in your head a lot, living in your dreams a lot and having to reconcile those dreams with the sometimes not so pleasant realities of, you know, the life you're actually living.

CORNISH: It's interesting to hear you say that because there's a key moment in the film where the couple has an argument and she essentially asks her boyfriend, do you like the music you're playing? Are you really, you know, are you doing what you really wanted to do? And it sounds like you had that moment.

CHAZELLE: Oh, yeah. And I've wanted to make movies since I can remember. I've never wanted to do anything else. So my whole life has kind of been defined for me by this desire and this dream. And so, you know, as a kid I had kind of ideas of what sort of movies I would make.

And, you know, as a kid kind of anything seems possible, you know, so it's all kind of far off. So you just sort of enjoy the dream. And then it becomes somewhat more difficult to handle when you have to start compromising, when you have to start doing things that adults do, when you have to start paying the bills, when you have to start dealing with people's responses to your art. When you're an adult, it's hard to kind of sustain that. Yeah, that was something I think especially with Ryan's character in the movie that was personal to me, for sure.

CHAZELLE: Before he moved to Los Angeles, Damien Chazelle played in competitive jazz bands in high school. As a screenwriter, he never let go of his love of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ SONG, "HERMAN'S HABIT")

CORNISH: "La La Land" has the verve of a Jazz Age musical, but it also questions any one person trying to be the gatekeeper of the tradition. Jazz is dying, Ryan Gosling's Sebastian declares at one point. And it's up to him to save it. Not so fast, says John Legend. He plays a successful bandleader in the film who asked, how are you going to save jazz if no one's listening?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LA LA LAND")

JOHN LEGEND: Jazz is dying because of people like you. You're playing to 90-year-olds at The Lighthouse. Where are the kids? Where are the young people? You're so obsessed with Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk. These guys were revolutionaries. How are you going to be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You're holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.

CORNISH: Damien Chazelle, which person have you been in that conversation?

CHAZELLE: (Laughter) More often than not, I feel like I'm Ryan, you know. I'm Sebastian, sitting there somewhat uncomfortably, taking it all in, listening to John and yet understanding that in a certain very fundamental way, John is right. I sort of jokingly think of that scene as, like, it's like my, you know, the two angels on my shoulder kind of arguing about what it means to, you know, not just be a jazz musician. That's what they're talking about specifically there, but the, you know, just being an artist. At what point does preservation of what you love about, you know, older art forms become encasing something in amber? And at what point does trying to modernize something start to corrupt it?

CORNISH: It's fascinating because this does feel like a jazz musical. It, like, it definitely has that sensibility even though it is so modern LA in its look.

CHAZELLE: I mean, again, the thing with jazz is that jazz is and in some ways always will remain a modern music. That's why, you know, there's a moment in the movie where Ryan's character I think makes an argument earlier that jazz is dying, which I don't entirely agree with, actually. I don't think jazz is dying in any way. But I think Ryan is talking about a specific kind of jazz, a specific, again, somewhat in his mind encased in amber type of jazz that was played in the jazz clubs or on the big band stages in the '30s, '40s, '50s, maybe into the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ SONG, "CITY OF STARS")

CHAZELLE: And that's a sort of preference or viewpoint of a lot of, you know, of a whole sector of people. And then John Legend's character comes from a completely other side of the equation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "START A FIRE")

LEGEND: (Singing) Oh, I just know I feel so good tonight.

CHAZELLE: I guess I, you know, I hoped with this movie, both with the Jazz within it but also just with the entire approach to the movie, that it would have a little bit of old and new in it. That it would sort of at the end of the day almost make the case for what John's character is saying, not - maybe not literally but just that idea that sometimes it's OK to adapt to modernity a little bit. I think in some way...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

CHAZELLE: ...That's what the characters learn a bit, that it's - you have to preserve what you believe in. You can't compromise too much. But sometimes it's not compromise. Sometimes it's actually, you know, finding a way to push something forward, whether it's a musical or a - or an idea of jazz you might have.

CORNISH: Well, Damien Chazelle, thank you so much for talking with us about this film. It was really fun.

CHAZELLE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Damien Chazelle. His new film "La La Land" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.