Cynicism's not welcome in 'La La Land'

Brian Truitt
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MIDDLEBURG, Va. — With memorable showtunes and elaborate dance numbers, La La Land is waging a one-film war on cynicism this awards season.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) fall for each other in the musical 'La La Land.'

Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s new film (in theaters Dec. 9) breaks from the realism of modern cinema, embraces the flair of the old-school movie musical and showcases a view of the world where “your emotions can actually upend logic,” Chazelle said in a post-screening Q&A with star Emma Stone at the Middleburg Film Festival Saturday night.

“If you feel enough, are in love enough, dream big enough, are heartbroken enough, you will break out into song and a 90-piece orchestra will burst out with you.”

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Chazelle’s main goal with La La Land, which casts Stone as struggling young actress Mia and Ryan Gosling as her jazzman love interest Sebastian, was to see if he could do a musical like those in the 1940s and '50s that still feel relevant and urgent. But exploring romance was also a top priority, the director said. “The craziness of falling in love and what that feels like and the way a relationship can upend how you feel, those extremes lend themselves to a musical.”

In the process of writing it, he added, the project became less about making a musical and more about expressing his feelings about being an artist in “a city full of dreamers where things don’t always work out.”

Damien Chazelle directs a scene on the set of 'La La Land.'

Things so far seem to be going La La Land's way. It's an early frontrunner at the Oscars for best picture — all 24 experts on the awards site predict a nomination — and Stone is a favorite to receive her second acting nod.

Chazelle wrote the screenplay for La La Land six years ago but only recently got financing for the retro-style musical. “It felt like this impossible proposition to get made,” said Chazelle, who also wrote and directed the acclaimed 2014 film Whiplash. The music drama which earned J.K. Simmons a supporting actor Oscar was admittedly easier to make. “It takes place in just a few rooms (and) it doesn’t involve a couple hundred people on the freeway.”

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Chazelle jokes about it now, “but I look back and there’s a lot of anger in Whiplash. I think some of that was a certain head-beating-against-the-wall in a cathartic way.”

Emma Stone could be an Oscar contender for her role as a struggling actress in 'La La Land.'

Filming La La Land in Los Angeles — which plays its own role in the movie — also reminded Stone of her younger days trying to make it in Hollywood. She lived in the Park La Brea area for a couple of years when she was first auditioning for roles, and when driving through it during production, “I had this completely brand new experience with that time of my life and level of dreaming and hoping and heartbreak and feeling crushed and trying again.”

Mia’s Hollywood experience is a relatable one for Stone, whose ballad Audition in the film is one of La La Land’s signature highlights. The self-doubt her character feels continues even now for the actress. “But that’s also what fuels you to do better and to learn more,” said Stone.

“That question never goes away: Is this going to work out long term? Do you lose it? Do you ever really have it? It’s a nebulous crazy thing when it comes to living a creative life.”

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