Damien Chazelle has injected a new lease of life into a genre that many would consider to be a product of a bygone Hollywood era; the musical.
With ‘La La Land’, the man behind the exhilarating indie ‘Whiplash’ has affectionately adhered to the tropes of the genre, while at the same time avoiding any sense of being a mere pastiche.
“It was a tricky balance sometimes because there was so much that I wanted pay homage to in the genre, but the chief responsibility of the movie was to be a a contemporary story that says something about real life today and where we are today,” explains the 31-year-old writer-director.
“I guess I’ve always been really interested in that smashing together of old and new, and movie magic with reality. So it was this constant balance when it came to both the writing and then the shooting and editing of the movie, to make sure that there was an equilibrium between those two different poles.”
Drenched in cinematic tradition, ‘La La Land’ is an ode to the genre it belongs to – so we thought it wise to quiz Chazelle on the five musicals that he felt inspired this wondrous piece of cinema.
‘Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!’ (1933)
You may not be familiar with this Al Jolson starring comedy musical, but it’s one that has evidently left its mark on Chazelle. Director Lewis Milestone places what is a playful, irreverent tale in a very real world, set during the Great Depression, something that Chazelle manages effortlessly in ‘La La Land’.
“[‘Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!’] not very well known, it’s an old, 1930s Lewis Milestone musical with Al Jolson,” Chazelle explained. “The songs don’t really begin and end it very ordinary ways, they flow in and out, and sometimes some of the dialogue is in rhythm, or in verse, and the whole thing tells this story that is somewhat romantic, somewhat bittersweet, somewhat melancholy, about a bum who falls in love with a rich society girl. It’s a fairytale vision of the city, which is like a romantic playground. Anyway, I love it.”
‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ (1964)
This five-time Academy Award nominee hails from France, and can be likened to ‘La La Land’ from a visual perspective, thanks to the beautifully surrealistic aesthetic, and the sheer vibrancy of the colours.
“This is one by Jacques Demy, and I’ve spoken about this one a lot before,” says Chazelle, “specifically in terms of colour palette, even down to the musical sensibility of Michel Legrand, his orchestration, they were very big influences for me.”
‘A Star is Born’ (1954)
It seemed almost inevitable we may see a Judy Garland production in Chazelle’s list, for there’s a similarity between her and Emma Stone. ‘A Star is Born’ seems a perfect choice too, as a clear inspiration on La La Land’s narrative, of a actress vying to make a name for herself in Hollywood.
“It’s a sort of vision of LA, a CinemaScope, Technicolour Los Angeles, a movie about Hollywood, about the pitfalls of Hollywood,” says Chazelle, “And also really just that idea of marrying the Hollywood musical with a more tragic, more adult view of the world, where things don’t always work out. That was really important to me.”
‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (1954)
Stanley Donen’s classic is one of the great musicals of all time, and not just an inspiration for Chazelle, but the majority of films that have thrived in this very genre since it’s 1954 release. The meticulous, seamless choreography in particular has informed the musical set-pieces in ‘La La Land’.
“This one is important in terms of filming dance, especially, the way Stanley Donen stages the dancing, and the Michael Kidd choreography,” says Chazelle.
“Again, the CinemaScope staging, ensemble dance numbers for the wide screen, it’s really it’s own thing. The movie’s use of screen space, and again the dance on screen is so kinetic and amazing. And ‘Lonesome Polecat’ is so great. It’s all done in one shot, it’s just so beautifully choreographed with the cameras, it’s so elegant, it never feels showy-offy, none of the dancing or camerawork in that scene feels at all like it’s trying to be virtuosic and yet it’s really virtuosic, the staging and the supple kind of way the camera moves. It’s just effortless and elegant. So that one is amazing.”
‘An American in Paris’ (1951)
Vincente Minnelli’s classic won a remarkable six Oscars – which could very well be emulated by L’a La Land’ at the forthcoming Academy Awards. In terms of quality there’s little between them, and the way they both blur the line between reality and fantasy is a distinctive similarity, while Gosling’s charm and allure emulates a certain Gene Kelly – and that’s quite the commendation.
“This is one I obviously took a lot from,” admits Chazelle, “particularly the final 20 minutes, the dream ballet sequence, which I just think is one of the great 20 minutes in movie history.”
‘La La Land’ is in UK cinemas from Thursday, 12 January. Watch a trailer below.