HOLLYWOOD – It’s Hollywood’s weekend. The 89th Academy Awards will be held Feb. 26 and nominated for a record 14 Oscars is a musical ode to the award’s hometown titled “La La Land.”
The Damien Chazelle-directed film is tied with “All About Eve” (1950) and “Titanic” (1997) for nominations, with nods in the major categories of best picture, actor, actress, director, writing and, of course, original score — a must for a musical. “La La Land” has already won Golden Globes in those areas.
With all the praise — and the recent news that, thanks to Chinese audiences, the film has rocketed past the $300 million mark for box-office intake — fans might be surprised to hear that best actor nominee Ryan Gosling initially thought the movie would be something of an underdog.
“It’s beautiful but not slick,” Gosling, 36, tells The Japan Times, stressing that he and co-star Emma Stone, 28, aren’t professional singers or dancers, but that they practiced hard to come across as “pretty good, but far from perfect. Maybe people rooted for us for that reason. At least we gave it the old college try.”
In “La La Land,” Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist dedicated to “the purest jazz.” He falls for Mia (Stone), an aspiring actress who doesn’t quite agree with his purity test for music.
Gosling mentions that when making a film like “La La Land,” which is bright, colorful and nostalgic, an actor never really knows how the audience or critics are going to react.
“Making it, you’re doing your best and you’re sort of in love with the material and the director’s vision — even more so when the director wrote the project,” he says. “But it could easily have been released to a loud chorus of bad reviews — you know, on the order of, ‘How corny, how irrelevant, how outdated. … And why didn’t they hire actors who could really sing and dance?’ ” Gosling laughs briefly: “Or even worse, it could have been received with … indifference!”
Luckily, that didn’t happen and Gosling suspects word of mouth played a role in the film’s success. Stone agrees, positing that people have been charmed by the same innocent and nostalgic movie-going experience they got from 2011’s “The Artist,” which also won best picture at the Oscars.
“To me, it’s not an intellectual exercise. I think that the point of the film is that it just takes you on a sentimental journey,” she says. “It’s old-fashioned yet contemporary, with the career aspects and both of them pursuing their dreams and her not settling for marriage as her one and only goal.”
More simply, Stone believes that it’s the kind of film audiences enjoy — not analyze. It’s fun and light, especially at a point in time when Americans might be sick of analysis.
“The times, all the politicking and controversy, the surprise and disappointment that this (presidential) campaign was dirtier than ever … that bad behavior could be rewarded. In a nutshell, it’s escapism,” Stone says.
A self-confessed movie buff, she goes on to compare the situation to the time of the Great Depression (1929-39), “when things were tough and people felt disillusioned, so they went to musicals and (watched) fantasy.”
“La La Land” is seen in Hollywood as a big victory for writer-director Chazelle, 32. He previously helmed the 2014 film “Whiplash,” which also dealt heavily in music and, in particular, the idea of following your dreams.
“Both lead characters have integrity,” he says. “They don’t merely want to succeed. They want to make it big on their own terms and stay true to their own visions.”
Chazelle has previously said that he had long wanted to do a “modern musical,” one with a realistic, even unromantic setting. For that reason he dismissed setting the film in New York, New Orleans or even Paris.
“I like the idea of contrast,” he says. “Song and dance at modern sites and in situations audiences can relate to. It’s a novel way of looking at musicals and proving they’re still a viable genre.”
The incongruous musical settings in “La La Land” include an LA freeway and local suburbs like Santa Monica, Pasadena and Long Beach. The filmmakers vetoed the idea of shooting in lower-cost Canada and trying to pass off, say, Vancouver or Toronto, as LA.
“Canada’s great,” says Chazelle, whose mother is Canadian-American, “and I love (his native) Connecticut but I wanted this to be a love letter to Los Angeles.”
One memorable sequence between Gosling and Stone was shot in LA’s Griffith Park, which overlooks the San Fernando Valley. The demanding six-minute dance was a single uninterrupted take, filmed at “magic hour,” when the sun went down. After extensive rehearsal, the sequence was shot in a remote area of the park, one with no street lighting, four times in two days (the fourth take was used).
“Apart from the actors’ marks, there were 27 different marks for the crane to hit,” as the two principals walk to their cars following a party, with the setting sun “in its perfect spot,” Chazelle says.
“It had to be perfect, and it was perfectly done,” Stone says. “People are already calling it a classic or iconic scene. So much of the credit goes not just to Damien but our superlative cinematographer, (Oscar-nominated) Linus Sandgren.”
If “La La Land” is successful at the Academy Awards this weekend, could that foretell a resurgence in the genre? While many people hope that’s the case, Stone is a tad skeptical. The last hit musical was “Chicago” in 2002, and it took home six Oscars, including best picture. However, it never sparked a revival.
“I think we’re in an era of project-by-project calculation, each one on its own terms, hit or miss,” Stone says. “I think our film works, as ‘Chicago’ did, because it’s organic — it’s the story first, the music second. The music is well integrated into the plot and characters. You can look back at so many musicals that had some wonderful songs in them but they’re artificial, it’s like the (songs) are slotted in.
“They’re more beautifully sung than what I did or Ryan did, but the feel of the musical … put it this way: take away the songs, and lots of past musicals don’t hold up. ‘Chicago’ without its songs is still a great plot, and ours is a modern love story. It’s far from mindless.”
There seems to be truth in her assessment. While both of the main actors downplay their song and dance capabilities, the Oscar considerations had to come from somewhere. Team “La La Land” isn’t getting its hopes up — one source at Lionsgate, the studio behind “La La Land,” points out: “No musical has ever gotten so many (nominations) and cynics may vote to confirm an opinion that we don’t deserve them. … (The stars) are terrific, but it’s usually high drama that wins for acting awards.”
Gosling reiterates that he and Stone rehearsed “prodigiously” for their musical numbers.
“The acting comes easy, or as easy as it should. The numbers, there’s the need to sing and to dance as well as we’re capable, ignoring our outer limitations and keeping in mind that it’s two regular people, not (musical actors) Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
“I can now say a musical is the hardest sort of movie to make, for the actors and the people planning and carrying it out. But therefore it’s also probably the most rewarding sort of movie to make, especially when it hits big, which is a bigger risk for a musical.”
Gosling isn’t sure how audiences in Japan will respond, “but I think they’ll like it there. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s also about personal discovery, romance, disillusionment, creativity and integrity. And, oh, yes, love.”
“La La Land” is now playing in cinemas across the country. For more information, visit www.lalaland.movie.