Blending beautiful storytelling with stunning choreography and captivating composition, the breakout musical hit, La La Land (2016), is the ultimate triple threat. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the critically acclaimed work dominated this year’s award-season, winning Best Director and Best Original Score, at both the Golden Globes as well as the OSCARS. And though it didn't win an award for best choreography, the dancing tied the film together.
“The music and the film's story, about two struggling artists in Los Angeles who can't launch their careers, are inseparable — it's a musical, after all,” wrote National Public Radio’s Maureen McCollum. La La Land is directed by Damien Chazelle and scored by Justin Hurwitz who met at Harvard University over a decade ago. Bonding over their love of music, the students quickly became friends, band-mates, and collaborators.
Their senior thesis, “an acclaimed black-and-white musical, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” laid the blueprint for what eventually became La La Land. ‘If [Hurwitz] would have said no [to supplying the music for the movie], our roads would have been very different and there certainly wouldn't have been a La La Land,’ Chazelle revealed to McCollum. ‘The smartest decision I ever made was to latch on to him and not let go.’
So, is the friendship and creative partnership spanning for over ten years the main reason the musical and directorial elements of La La Land fit so well? It’s very likely one of them, but the main driving factor was probably innovation. ‘Our challenge was to make a movie that didn't feel old-fashioned or a soundtrack, songs, or score that wouldn't sound like they actually could have been in some of those older movies," stated Hurwitz. ‘How can we make it new, make it modern?’
Music has an amazing ability to influence how a film is perceived, the characters’ likability and the extent to which we believe we understand their thoughts. A (2011) study published in Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts found “that underscoring not only helps viewers attribute to a character a certain state of mind they recognize, but what they know about character’s feelings may also influence how they feel about the character.”
Instead of pre-recording some of the songs, Stone and Gosling were asked to sing live, on camera, while Hurwitz played the piano in the background. They did this for two reasons: to blend three very difficult art forms into a cohesive narrative that stood independently from dialogue, and because it was a great way to capture the vulnerability of the actors as well as their characters. Though it was a potentially risky decision, since neither actor is a professional singer, it paid off in the end.
To see their vision to fruition, the collaborators joined forces with producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz. ‘We were just like, “Literally everything about that is probably wrong, so let's do it,”’ recalled Horowitz in an interview with The Telegraph’s Adam White. ‘The program was pushing us to take risks and do ambitious projects.’ Although the film was originally supposed to be a small production, the group eventually decided to go all out.
“When it came to the film's opening number, with a parade of dancers performing in the middle of a traffic jam, the production shut down a ramp connecting L.A.'s 105 and 110 Interstates for two roasting summer's days in August 2015,” White reported. “Choreographer Mandy Moore (not that one) spent four months preparing for the shoot, which involved 30 dancers, 60 cars and over 100 extras.” She worried that if the opening didn’t captivate the audience right away, they would leave the movie.
Working with Stone and Gosling individually, Moore tried to instill a love for the art form instead of simply training their muscle memory by using different types of music: classic Sinatra for Gosling, and the rocker-sister band Haim for Stone. ‘I never felt like it was like, “O.K., tell me what I’m supposed to do,” stated Moore to Gia Kourlas of The New York Times. ‘It was always: “Let’s try this. Does this feel right? Great. Let’s add another layer to that,” to make it more difficult or more showy or less showy.’
Although the film is a musical, the idea was to make the viewers feel like they were watching real people with real dreams, but achieving this effect took a lot of work. It was absolutely imperative for the “characters to fall seamlessly into the dances, which were filmed in single takes, using natural light, which gave the movie its signature fantasy-meets-reality aesthetic. These days, dances on film have so many cuts they start to look antiseptic.”
It seems like Chazelle agrees. ‘I wouldn't say it was easy, but we got what we wanted,’ he stated to White. ‘And without those months of prep and dress rehearsal, I don't think we would have been able to.’ One of the things that makes La La Land such a success is its ability to strike an emotional chord - philosophically, visually as well as musically - thanks to two clever visionaries and an interdisciplinary collaboration between film, music and dance.