On first approach, La La Land seems like a surprising film from Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old director and screenwriter who broke out three years ago with the brutal Miles Teller drama Whiplash. That film exuded bloody physicality, crassness, and intensity in its gripping study of a toxic relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer and his cruel instructor—qualities that would have no place in Chazelle's beautiful, melancholic follow-up.
A dreamlike musical-drama about the pitfalls that come with chasing your dreams, La La Land follows an emotional bell curve traced by the relationship between struggling actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and aspirant jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling). Set amid a picturesque array of landmarks in the Los Angeles area, the film indulges in visual flights of fancy that you'd expect from vintage Hollywood musical spectacles—an astounding and joyous opening number set on the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, a surreal sequence inside the Griffith Observatory that literally defies gravity. There's tap-dancing, keytars, underwater tracking shots, and a stagey, dialogue-free closing sequence that might just be one of the most impressive moments caught on film this year.
But La La Land also has plenty in common with Chazelle's work so far—both Whiplash and his auspicious 2009 debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. In a few ways, it's an explicit and more expensive callback to the latter film, a shot-on-the-cheap indie musical centered on the dissolution (and potential reconciliation) of a relationship. La La Land also shares Whiplash's not-entirely-optimistic outlook on chasing your dreams, falling in love, and balancing both without losing it all. If you've ever had to settle for less while wishing for more—or if you've ever looked back at a specific point in your life and wondered, What could I have done differently?—La La Land cuts uncomfortably close to the bone.
"I have a lot of empathy for finding yourself at a crossroads where you've been carrying a torch for something," Chazelle explains in conversation in the lobby of Manhattan's Bowery Hotel, "but real life isn't bending itself to your will and you need to pay the bills. It takes a toll on you." He should know: Even after the critical success of Whiplash, convincing Hollywood to take a gamble on a romantic musical with original songs and nary a superhero in sight proved to be tougher than convincing an EDM freak to jam out to some Duke Ellington. Chazelle estimates that it took more than half a decade to win financiers over.
"It was the combination of everything Hollywood would hate," he laughs. "It became a project that we almost thought would never get made. We kept the faith and kept pounding the pavement, but we were told by so many people in Hollywood that we were wasting our time." As La La Land continues to garner accolades, including Oscar prospects, those Hollywood types are being proved increasingly wrong. Although Chazelle refers to the heaping doses of praise as "vindicating," he empathizes with the executives who were skeptical: "I can understand that, if I were receiving the pitch, even if I liked it, it probably would've cost me my job. I have a little more sympathy for people on the other side now."
During my hour-long interview with him, we talked about his continued return to the subject of jazz, the state of film today, and the mystique and pitfalls of living in Los Angeles; what follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
VICE: You studied jazz drumming in high school. What was your first impression of the genre when listening to it as an adolescent?
Damien Chazelle: It was just noise, at first—but so was almost anything that wasn't Disney music. My dad played jazz in the house all the time, and before I had any interest in the music itself, he told me stories about Charlie Parker and these people who seemed like mythical figures to me. I got really interested in the stories of jazz before I got interested in the music. Now my dad listens to classical music more.
"It's hard enough being a musician, but imagine trying to make a living as a jazz musician."
Jazz fans are sometimes known for their snobbery. Is that something that you've wrestled with yourself?
I guess. Your average jazz fan does no service to jazz, and if those hardcore jazz lovers want to ask why the average person doesn't care about this music anymore, all they have to do is to look at themselves. Having once been one of those fans, I have very little sympathy for them, but you have to have empathy.
Something that was interesting to me while I was making my first movie about young jazz musicians: It's hard enough being a musician, but imagine trying to make a living as a jazz musician. What I really love about the musicians of that generation is that there isn't this holier-than-thou attitude—they're wonderfully self-deprecating, telling jazz jokes like, "A rock musician will get paid a $1 million to play three notes, and a jazz musician will get paid $3 to play a million notes." There's this humorousness about it that's not self-righteous.
In La La Land, Sebastian is initially a jazz purist whose ideals change when he's offered a new, more modern gig.
The idea of playing stuff that only a handful of people are going to appreciate can feel really romantic and sexy, but that can wear off pretty quickly and weigh on you. He feels more than just financial responsibility—he's also like, "As much as I denigrate this kind of music, I'm playing it, and they're cheering, and I've never been cheered for in my life." How can you judge that? It's one thing to be a youthful idealist—"I don't need anything, all I need is my jazz." That gets you in a certain way when you're in your 20s, but it stops at a certain time. Time makes it harder and harder to carry that sense of conviction.
La La Land is very much a film about Los Angeles itself, but you aren't a native. What were your feelings about it when you first moved there?
It was weird. I didn't know if I was going to stay for a year, many years, or permanently. The light was different from the East Coast, it beats down on you. The sky is huge, because it's not a tall city—it's a wide city, and there are palm trees that are tall like toothpicks. The trees look like there's no way that they could even stand up, and then you learn later that all those palm trees aren't actually meant to grow there at all—it's all imported, so everything about it is fake and dreamlike and surreal. That can be great and beautiful and romantic, but it can also be really frustrating and isolating. It took me maybe three or four years before I really felt at home.
If you move to LA to do movies, it can be a very one-note city. Everyone—even the gas-station attendant—has a script and a headshot. You're in this bubble, and you almost don't even know what's going on outside that world, which makes it really hard if you feel like you're far away from what you want to be doing, because it feels like it's the meaning of life when you're there.
A lot of artists I've talked to about the city say it's a very good place if you want to disappear.
It's much easier to disappear because it's so disconnected and sprawling. It's funny—a lot of things that I used to hate [about Los Angeles] I really appreciate now. I appreciate how motivating the city is, and how you can have these private moments that other cities don't really let you to have. I want people to get out of this movie that LA is, at least, unique in ways where, if you hate it or love it, you still have to admit that there's no city like it.
There are a lot of Los Angeles landmarks in the film. Were you familiar with them before making the film?
Most of the movie was actually filmed very far from where I live, so I discovered places that I'd heard a lot about but never visited. It's funny, the number of things in the film that actually don't function in LA right now—the Rialto Theatre, the Angels Flight in Bunker Hill. It's one of the ways that the movie is an idealized version of LA, and a lot of the stuff was the result of the process of discovery.
What was the first musical you ever saw?
Excluding Disney films, probably The Wizard of Oz. I didn't really get into old Hollywood musicals until I was 18 or 19. It's an age thing—if you show Singing in the Rain to a young child today, they're enraptured by it, but once they get to be a certain age, they're not interested in it. I didn't love musicals at first—breaking into song annoyed me every time. My way into musicals was through experimental movies, weirdly. You watch a lot of old avant-garde cinema, like Maya Deren, and suddenly, like, a Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] or Busby Berkeley movie is an experimental movie, too.
These Hollywood studios were making mass art, but in a really cool, audacious, playful, and genre-defying way. That sense of defiance was the key for me. Once I fell, I fell so hard, and I haven't gotten over it since. I compensated for my earlier lack of enthusiasm by becoming obsessed with the idea of a musical as the coolest thing ever.
"On the eve of when we first started showing it, I was having panic attacks, and I couldn't sleep—I was a mess."
All of your films are very extroverted works, artistically—they don't shy away from boldness in terms of approach. Do you ever feel self-conscious about what you put forth into the world?
Yeah, especially with La La Land. I felt like I really went out on a limb with this one, so I've never been more nervous about showing a movie than this one. On the eve of when we first started showing it, I was having panic attacks, and I couldn't sleep—I was a mess. But these are also the kind of movies that I love the most. The movies that make me want to make movies risk the most by putting it all out there, even if they fall on their face. I have so much respect for movies that try something or risk being embarrassing. That's much more inspiring to me than movies that play it safe.
La La Land and Whiplash both address chasing your dreams and how bad failure feels when things don't turn out the way you want them to. Do you personally connect with those feelings?
I relate to that so much. My juices were flowing very readily when writing La La Land because I feel it so palpably. Whether stuff feels like it's going well or not, the thing I feel the most at any given moment is failure and disappointment. As an artist, you build up something as if it's going to be your salvation—and then it's another debacle. One by one, certain people move back home, and you're like, "Am I going to be next?" There's that idea of holding your head between your legs as you head back because you're yet another person who just couldn't cut it. Its an awful way of looking at life that you just can't escape, especially in a city like LA. I really wanted to capture the mercilessness of that experience.
"I love when a movie fades to black, and I'm like, 'What the fuck? There has to be another half hour.'"
La La Land and Whiplash both have very distinct and memorable ending. What do you look for in terms of a good ending to a film?
I try to create an emotional culmination that hopefully has some complexity—and then I end it right there. Overstaying the welcome can fuck up a lot of endings. I love when a movie fades to black, and I'm like, "What the fuck? There has to be another half hour." Then I say, "Oh, that was the perfect ending." It's a wonderful experience that I only occasionally get at the movies, and it's something only movies can do. With a book, you can brace yourself for the last page, but if a movie can surprise you in an ending the way it does, it's fun.
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La La Land is in theaters now.