Two years ago, director Damien Chazelle had a wonderful success with his independent film “Whiplash,” which won three Academy Awards.
His new “La La Land” looks to make an even bigger splash. With a focus on more than drums, it’s a full-fledged musical the likes of which has not been seen in some time.
Chazelle, in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival — where his San Rafael-based parents attended the screening — says he was inspired by musicals of old, and talents ranging from Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly to director Jacques Demy, who made 1964’s remarkable “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
“Those were musicals that we were thriving on,” said Chazelle, “but we also wanted to make something that feels of the moment, new, or maybe timeless. It has one foot in the old and one foot in the new at the same time.”
Composer Justin Hurwitz, also in town to screen the film, added, “That’s part of our concept, doing a musical where the musical numbers aren’t all ‘jazz hands’ numbers. It was fun to write music that could break the reality but also feel grounded and tied to the characters.”
Chazelle was also conscious of the color scheme; one number, performed on a shiny black floor, was manipulated to emphasize blue, resembling old-time Technicolor.
While for “Whiplash,” he made a New York-style movie in Los Angeles, this time Chazelle and collaborators embraced Los Angeles settings.
“One thing about this movie was getting to shoot L.A. for L.A., not having to hide palm trees,” said Chazelle. “We wanted to really highlight what you really get in L.A., the unique things, even the things we don’t like, such as that certain brand of L.A. traffic.”
Also drawing on tradition, the filmmakers wanted to include a ballet-style climax, similar to those in Vincente Minnelli’s “An American in Paris” and “The Band Wagon.”
“At the height of the Hollywood musical, the studios decided that it was OK to divert from the story for maybe 20 minutes, music only, just Gershwin on these weird painted sets,” Chazelle says “The audaciousness of those is so inspiring. We knew we wanted to end with something like that.”
Chazelle and Hurwitz say they’ve been living and breathing music since they met in a college rock band. Hurwitz says they took the band very seriously for a year, and then became more interested in filmmaking.
“The remaining guys continued with the band, and they actually got a record deal,” says Hurwitz. “We both thought that was our chance. We thought we blew it!”
IF YOU GO
La La Land
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Running time 2 hours, 8 minutes