Sometimes, when you watch a movie, all you can do is marvel at its very genesis. Like, who makes original musicals anymore? It brandishes a defiant middle finger straight into the faces of the studio marketing heads that dictate budgets nowadays. So walking into a La La Land screening at TIFF this year, I grinned at the pure audacity of taking two of the biggest movie stars in the world and putting on a big ol’ show—a song-and-dance spectacular featuring new music and no irony or winks or nods whatsoever—telling the bittersweet tale of two young lovers and their earnest quest for fame and fulfillment in the titular town. I pictured baby-faced director Damien Chazelle, settling into his duct-taped BarcaLounger in some shithole apartment with a yellow legal pad and scribbling on page one: “We open on the 405 Freeway during rush hour, and suddenly, dozens of young Hollywood hopefuls burst out of their cars and into song, sending their pleas for fame to the heavens—and, hopefully, the ears of the agents in the valley below.” Oh, yes. It’s that kind of movie. But it works.
Back in 2010, Chazelle was one of those hopefuls, making short films and grabbing writer-for-hire work where he could. He sighed over how perfect Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone would be for the roles of Seb, a stubborn, eternally gigging jazzman, and Mia, a wry actress slinging coffee on a studio backlot between disastrous auditions. “Getting them just didn’t seem realistic,” he remembers. “Like, Whatever—that’ll never happen.” And then it did. He broke big with Whiplash, the 2013 short film that crushed it at Sundance, and the resulting multi-Oscar-winning 2014 feature film of the same name. Now everyone wanted to be in his next movie—even if it was a musical.
The first thing people asked me when I mentioned I’d seen an early screening of the film was: can Gosling and Stone actually sing and dance? The answer is yes…albeit in a real-people-singing-and- dancing kind of way. Their lack of Broadway polish works in their favour, however, as their plaintive, heartfelt voices match the prickly, modern feel of the whole thing. Few movies have so poignantly captured the toil of being a young actor, a young musician, grinding it out while trying to Make It—and how their relationships can suffer along the way. And boy, are they relatable: Gosling and Stone may be startlingly gorgeous, with A-list power blasting out of every pore, but they also seem like people you could know in real life: the hot DILF who frequents your local coffee shop or your bestie from high school. Both actors have their own endearing origin stories: in her teens, Stone made a PowerPoint presentation for her family to get sign-off on her plan to move to Hollywood and try to break into acting, while Gosling struck out from small-town Ontario for a spot on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club. “Emma and Ryan were able to keep it from ever feeling too…extroverted,” Chazelle says. “That’s actually the trap for a lot of modern musicals. You really see the sweat. Here we needed to have that level of energy but still have it feel human. You have to go with them through this journey, and they were really great about grounding everything and making sure we still believe it’s two people we can root for, even when they’re flying into the stars.” Because this is the type of musical where a couple visits L.A.’s Griffith Observatory only to find themselves waltzing high in the dome, borne up by true love. Gosling wasn’t sure people even wanted a musical right now. “But, at the heart of it, it’s about these two people and it’s about their relationship, so it felt like it was accessible, even if you didn’t like musicals, you know?” he says. “The only way it would work was if there was a consistency of characters so it didn’t feel like they were suddenly different people while they were singing and dancing, and then went back to being the people who were talking five minutes earlier.”
Musicals also mean major training: La La Land had almost three months of rehearsals, and the leads did daily lessons in ballroom and tap. Gosling knew a little piano but no jazz, so he practised intensively for months. In the end, Chazelle didn’t have to use a piano double—not even for the close-up shots. And Gosling and Stone had their scenes down so cold that they often aced long one-shot takes. The two had an advantage going into La La Land: this is their third pairing, after 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad in 2013. Chazelle benefited from their ease, their shorthand: “They never try to one-up the other. It’s why they have such great chemistry on-screen; they actually listen to each other. They’re not in their own private little bubble of, ‘This is my acting moment.’” Going through this musical boot camp also brought them closer together. “Learning to dance together—it’s great when you know the person,” Stone says. After doing two films beforehand, Gosling says, there was no time wasted getting to know one another. Chazelle also had the pair improvise a lot, which, Gosling says, “connects you in a way that saying dialogue doesn’t, because you’re creating the scene together in that moment.” Their director had a modest budget and just 40 days to make the spectacle happen—and Chazelle loved it. “The fear is great ’cause there’s this exhilaration. When we did the opening sequence or their hilltop dance duet,we’d rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, but we only had a certain moment to do it: we only had that freeway ramp for two days; we only had a half-hour window over two days to shoot the hilltop duet for the sky to be that way,” Chazelle says. “You have a moment and you gotta grab it, and it’s scary, but it’s fun, and it makes movie-making feel more like live theatre, ’cause you’re in the moment.”
This is a movie all about moments, both big and small, from those first flirty minutes walking to your car together after a party, your crush carrying your shoes, to imagining the expanse of an entire life not lived over the course of a single song. The music feels like it’s written in a minor key, its gorgeous melancholy accompanying these characters’ days and nights as they struggle for greatness. When I ask how Stone and Gosling stood out themselves from the hordes of artists that flock to La La Land on the daily, they both had the same answer: luck. “I am incredibly grateful for what’s happened in my career, and I know I work hard, but there’s a lot of people that work hard and have amazing amounts of talent,” Stone says. “There’s so many dreamers everywhere—I have no way to explain why me and not someone else.”
Even if we don’t number among the legions of hopefuls, the soundtrack’s bittersweet tenor scores our own reflections, as we sit there in the theatre, transfixed—not just on the beauty on the screen before us but also on our own failures and triumphs, new loves and lost loves, our most fervent hopes. As Stone says, “Things never pan out the way you think they’re going to. Even if you achieve your dreams, you don’t account for what achieving your dreams means or what you sacrifice to get there, because there are always things that fall away. Or you achieve something you’ve always dreamt of and it feels totally different than you thought it would feel. La La Land is about all of that.”
That is, after all, what the best musicals can do. “Musical movies are the most transporting,” says Stone. “The world you create when you feel so emotional you have to burst into song or dance—there’s a sense of joy to it that’s rare.” Gosling agrees: “It’s very powerful. You can feel it in this movie when the numbers happen. It lifts you and takes you somewhere only it can.”