Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling might dance their way to the Oscar stage in 'La La Land.' (Photo credit: Dale Robinette)
Boy meets girl meets the up-ending aspirations of the city of stars – and they all break out of the conventions of everyday life as La La Land takes off on an exuberant song-and-dance journey through a life-changing love affair between a jazz pianist and a hopeful actress. At once an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics, a love letter to the Los Angeles of unabated dreams, and a distinctly modern romance, the film reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, bringing them together with writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash).
The film begins as everything begins in L.A.: stuck in traffic. This is where Sebastian meets Mia, with a disdainful honk in a traffic jam that mirrors all too well the gridlock they’re each navigating in their lives. Both are focused on the kind of near-impossible hopes that are the lifeblood of the city: Sebastian trying to get people to care about traditional jazz in the 21st Century, Mia aiming to nail just one uninterrupted audition. But neither expects that their fateful encounter will lead them to take leaps they never could alone.
The leaps they both make, towards each other and towards their artistic dreams, create its own quintessentially throwback cinematic world in La La Land – one that with light, color, sound, music and words takes a trip directly into the ecstasies of the happiness we chase – and the heartache of the passions we never get over.
As it turned out, Gosling had his own long-held affection for movie musicals that came into play the minute he came aboard. “I was really intrigued by the fact that Damien wanted to make a film in the style of that Fred and Ginger and Gene Kelly eras, because those are the musicals that move me. The fact that he wanted this film to have that kind of aesthetic and spirit of playfulness was fantastic because it was also a secret wish of mine to make a film like that.”
Another attraction for Gosling was bringing attention to an increasingly overlooked music genre. “Sebastian has dedicated his life to being a great jazz pianist, but in his mind, the world around him is saying those days are over. His heroes were born 70 years ago and, in this day and age, a great piano player playing real jazz is destined to work in bars where people don’t even stop their conversations to listen to you. So how much do you compromise to be the artist you want to be?”
The line between principled dedication and making yourself irrelevant is a fuzzy one Gosling acknowledges. “I think Sebastian is struggling with the difference between being a purist and being a snob. Ultimately, he faces a question lots of creative people are faced with at some point in life: do I keep pursuing this work that actually nourishes me or to do I have to accept that this is just a job and I have to pay my bills?”
That equation gets flipped in new ways when Sebastian meets Mia. Almost instantly, he sees her fate as more promising – and he wants to support her dreams. “I think it’s easier for him to get on board with Mia’s dream than it is with his own,” Gosling observes. “He just thinks Mia needs to create her own opportunities and stop waiting for people to give her permission to do what she loves to do.”
As much as Gosling could relate to the character, his work was seriously cut out for him as he prepared to take on the role of a passionate jazz pianist. He dove into months and months of jazz piano lessons, not to mention learning to dance with a modern sense of suave. La La Land allowed him to cross one of regrets off his bucket list. “Piano is something I always wished I had the time to learn so here I had this great opportunity to sit in front of a piano for three months and just play – and I took advantage of it. It was really one of the most fulfilling preproduction periods I’ve ever had.”
Stone, who previously worked with Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love and appeared with him in Gangster Squad, had no trouble responding to the funny, charismatic and torn Sebastian. “Ryan brought so much to this role. He learned to play the piano stunningly well and he’s been a great dance partner. But the thing that I was most surprised by is how funny he is in this role. I mean, I’ve always known that Ryan is funny, but he’s really, really funny in this movie. He’s kind of got it all going on as Sebastian.”
Stone faced a different challenge with the role – playing a character who has to be at once anchored in very real goals and feelings, while also able to erupt into a musical interlude at a moment’s notice. It helped that Stone is a Broadway veteran who recently starred as Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret.
Ryan Gosling thought Stone was a casting coup. “There’s no one else like Emma. She’s one-of-a-kind, and brings that same quality to Mia. You feel for Mia as someone who has been working in L.A, trying to catch a break, because you can see just how special and unique she is. But you also see that Mia’s a bit different and not necessarily what these people in the entertainment world are looking for — where they often want people who are interchangeable with one another. She’s just not that. She’s also an amazing dancer and I was really leaning on her a lot of the time, literally.”
Early on in the process, Stone met with Chazelle, who took her through his ideas for some of the musical numbers. “It was intoxicating. The idea of telling this really modern story of two struggling artists — but in a 1950s-style musical version of today’s Los Angeles — became something really exciting to me very quickly.”
Mia’s yearning for something beyond the ordinary also hit home with her. “Mia is driven by something that maybe she doesn’t completely understand. She wants to be an artist in a city of so many people who seem to be just like her. She feels that there’s something special inside her but she doesn’t quite know what it is. I could relate to her being an actress and going on auditions but even more so, there was something so exciting about taking her into this musical world where you can suddenly spin down the street or burst into song. That was a wonderful challenge.”
Though she has had experience with musical theater, like Gosling, Stone spent months preparing – and thriving on the process. “We did lots of preparation with [choreographer] Mandy Moore (Silver Linings Playbook) and for two months, we rehearsed every day,” she explains. “It was so much fun, because I’ve taken some dance in the past, but this was learning tap and jazz and ballroom dance – whole new languages of dance.”
Stone also points out that perfection wasn’t the goal when it came to the dance moves. “Our characters are struggling artists, so we were never asked to be incredibly brilliant dancers and singers. Actually, Damien wanted our relationship to feel alive and raw in a certain way, even though we’re part of these incredibly cinematic dance numbers. So little flaws and natural flubs were welcomed with open arms.”
As for what Mia takes away from the love affair, Stone is reflective. “I think Mia and Sebastian inspire each other to do things differently. They’re both in a rut when they meet and feeling creatively stalled. But the beautiful thing Sebastian does for Mia is ask, ‘why don’t you create your own stories to tell as an actress?’ And I think she needs that, because she’s forgotten she even has that ability. At the same time, Mia opens Sebastian up to the idea that maybe he can expand and pursue his art in previously unexplored ways. In the end, I think they open up new worlds that they both had inside themselves but really had never dared to access.”
For Chazelle, the pairing of Stone and Gosling was cinematic gold. “There’s a shorthand between Ryan and Emma, not just in person, but on screen. They do a very difficult thing in this movie, which is to ground the most ungrounded of genres. It takes actors like Ryan and Emma to establish this story inside real lives and make it human. There are very few people who can be as in the moment while still feeling like big, movie stars in the way this film needed.”
La La Land is now playing in Los Angeles and New York and opens nationwide December 16th.