La La Land’s Inspirations

2016 AFI Fest Centerpiece

Beginning with a single take song and dance production number set on a Los Angeles freeway, La La Land breathes new life into the Hollywood musical. Music was central to Whiplash (2014), Damien Chazelle’s earlier film. 500 Days of Summer (2009), directed by Marc Webb, featured location production numbers that helped make it a hit, but La La Land takes the concept into the stratosphere.

Scott Meslow in GQ writes:

La La Land is a gorgeous, romantic, unabashedly sentimental musical centered on a couple of starry-eyed dreamers: Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), whose paths are all but fated to cross. As the film cycles through four seasons of Los Angeles—or what pass for seasons, anyway—La La Land pays homage to the golden age of the Hollywood musical while telling a deceptively complicated story about the difficulty of balancing your personal aspirations with your commitment to another person.

Mia is an actress/barista while Sebastian, Seb for short, is a dedicated jazz musician like Andrew, the lead character in Whiplash. Seb plays for diners in a bar run by Bill, played by J.K. Simmons, the sadistic band director in Whiplash. Seb’s dream is to start a jazz club, a tough proposition in the 21st Century when the kids want hip hop, not bebop.

Mia delivers the bad news that she hates jazz. Worse, she associates it with insipid Kenny G muzak. Her parents attended cocktail parties where someone inevitably turned on a local jazz station to play in the background. No one really listened or cared, she tells him.

Seb’s style is progressive jazz or hard bop, the jazz that flourished from the later 1940s through the 1960s. He points out that the music is best appreciated live where it’s seen as well as heard. He shows her the beauty of the instantaneous composition and the power dynamics of the players on the stage as some retreat to supporting roles while others compete for dominance.

One of my favorite films about jazz is Round Midnight (1986), directed by
Bertrand Tavernier. It starred Dexter Gordon, one of the top tenor players in the bebop era, in a rare acting role. François Cluzet plays the young Frenchman who tries to save him from himself.

Produced by Irwin Winkler with a cameo by Martin Scorsese, Round Midnight is highly recommended for those inspired by the thrilling jazz performances of La La Land. Ryan Gosling has said that he watched the Ken Burns documentary to learn more about the form. He wasn’t a jazz aficionado going in, but he accomplished the astounding feat of learning piano in three months and executing complex passages, gracefully.

Bird (1988), the Charlie Parker biopic directed by Clint Eastwood, is also good but for pure authenticity ‘Round Midnight is hard to beat. More recently, Ethan Hawke starred in Born to Be Blue (2015), a biopic about trumpet great Chet Baker.

In his review of La La Land in Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes.

The two take a stroll, over to a view of L.A.’s glittering carpet of lights that merges into the pastel twilight, and Chazelle stages a gorgeous scene in which they sit, and talk, and start dancing, just the way actors did on sets in the 1950s. The sheer beauty of the staging creates a calm logic of devotion. These two belong together because Gosling, his slight edge of malice dipped in honey, and Stone, her vivacity cut by a pensive awareness, create a teasing erotic connection, but mostly they belong together because… they dance like this. That’s called the poetry of the 20th century, and the reverent way that Chazelle and his two actors revive it is a delicate and moving thing. Gosling and Stone click together as effervescently as they did in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” At the Griffith Observatory, where Sebastian and Mia go after having just seen it in “Rebel Without a Cause,” they enter the planetarium and are swept up into the stars, and it’s a transcendently goofy, gorgeously blissed-out moment.

Besides Hollywood musicals, Chazelle has cited Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), Jacques Demy’s The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg (1964) is another key influence.

La La Land‘s score and songs by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are reminiscent of Umbrella‘s Michel Legrand, the master of romanticism. There’s also a bittersweet thematic tone common to both that violates the old boy-meets-girl formula. While La La Land reaches similar operatic heights, it’s definitely not an opera. Dialogue is spoken, not sung libretto as in the Demy film, grounding La La Land in its contemporary locations.

In The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy writes:

Played out across the four seasons (albeit in different years), their romance begins bumpily. Seb, as he comes to be called, is downright rude to Mia at a springtime pool party, even though she could not look more splendid, quite like a brilliant sunflower, in a perfect yellow dress. Later, when he can no longer kid himself about his feelings for her, an enchanting musical sequence has them strolling and singing in the Hollywood Hills from one streetlamp to another backdropped by a glorious vista.

In just one of countless aesthetic decisions that have gone into making the film the sophisticated confection that it is, many of the musical numbers have been shot at magic hour, which both softens and intensifies the colors, as well as the beauty and romanticism of the mostly real-world Los Angeles settings. The city has rarely looked this gorgeous in films, a credit to the director’s romantic imagination as well as to the technical expertise of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), who has superbly composed the movie’s constant movement in the ultra-widescreen 2.52 x 1 aspect ratio . . .

Production designer David Wasco and costume designer Mary Zophres adroitly supplied touches of the old and new in an elegant way, while choreographer Mandy Moore similarly danced a stylistic tightrope that greatly helped Chazelle achieve his aim of delivering a welcome gift of vintage goods in a dazzling new package

Seb’s estranged musical partner Keith (John Legend) shows up with a proposition to join his commercial R&B band for $1000 per week plus a cut of the merchandising. Keith has a baby face, but he’s Satan offering the kingdoms of the world to a beguiled Jesus. Satan asked Jesus to worship him in return. Keith also demands endless touring. His music is harmless enough but Seb, who thrives on a grand piano, gets reduced to his trained seal in a hipster hat, playing prefab funk licks on an electronic keyboard.

Mia knows it’s a fate worse than death for her jazzman. Will he ever open Seb’s? Will her dreams for stardom, or at least one good part, pan out? Don’t count on a conventional Hollywood ending, but the emotional finale gives a hint of what might have been.

For an interview with choreographer Mandy Moore:

For more on La La Land’s music:

Damian Chavelle’s favorite musicals:

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