When someone breaks off a conversation by bursting into song and doing the Charleston on top of a trolley car, it's a strict violation of the social contract. When someone does so in a musical, though, it means all the rules of what one can do in a movie have blown out the window, borne on a flight of melody (and probably sequins).
This is exactly what filmmaker Damien Chazelle was looking for in a follow up to Whiplash.
Chazelle had limitless options after his catchphrase-generating indie hit nabbed a trio of Oscars in 2015, but the musical La La Land ended up being exactly his tempo. He'd been wanting to do one for years, having hatched the idea for La La Land as a student at Harvard in 2010. He even made an early low-budget version of the film as his senior thesis, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. After landing in Los Angeles, though, the burgeoning filmmaker bumped up against a wall of indifference in trying to get his musical made—so he made Whiplash instead. With that film's sleeper success, Chazelle was finally able to break down the wall and push La La Land through. It was also a chance to break all the rules of cinema.
"I think one of the fun things about musicals is that they really give you the freedom as a filmmaker to paint on a big canvas and go all out," the director says. "It’s sort of a maximalist genre, even though it can be emotionally subtle. There’s an embarrassment of riches baked in there."
The musical is a many splendored movie genre. It encompasses the old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers toe-tappers, the soaring Disney sing-alongs, and the razzle dazzle Jazz musicals. The one thing that they all have in common, though, is that anything can happen in them—from the most magical gravity-defiant adventures to the more steady, earthbound ballroom dancing spectacular. It was up to the filmmaker to figure out what level to land his on.
"The tonal juggling act of the movie was tricky," Chazelle says. "There were a lot of conversations between me and the leads and the crew about where the movie would sit tonally. My hope was that it would always feel like one cohesive statement, ranging from total realism to some of the most fantastic moments you can imagine and hopefully it will all feel like one single idea."
One place loaded with realism in the movie is the performances. Despite all the state of the art possibilities for CGI-enhanced dancing, stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling spent four months learning tap and ball room dancing, and Gosling even learned how to play jazz piano so he wouldn’t have to use a piano double. Its this authenticity, combined with some epically dreamlike sequences, and of course Chazelle's long-simmering musical savvy, that made La La Land a runaway hit at the Toronto Film Festival. All signs point toward the director making the right choice in how to follow up his breakthrough film.
"I think some of the greatest moments in movie history are from musicals," he says. "Expressing emotion through dance and music and cinema without the need for dialogue, those moments are just foundational for cinema."