From a record-breaking seven trophies at the Golden Globes and another five at the BAFTAs, Damien Chazelle’s third feature La La Land was the front-runner of the awards season. When it was premiered in August 2016 at the Venice Film Festival, the film was greeted with a swell of accolades. But since then, there has been a push-back of negative opinion against Chazelle’s tribute to classic American and French musicals. Barry Jenkins’s sublime coming-of-age drama Moonlight did make a last-minute dent in La La Land’s chances by winning Best Picture after a horrendous mix-up caused by presenter Warren Beatty. But La La Land did not do badly for itself: it won best director, music and original song, cinematography, production design, and best actress for Emma Stone.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The film was written by Chazelle in 2010 after his little-seen but critically-praised 2009 vérité musical Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, but few studios were willing to back a jazz musical years after the genre was considered dead. The former musician put the project on the backburner, and it was only after the success of his sophomore effort, Whiplash, in 2014, that financiers evinced interest in the story.
Originally meant to star Emma Watson and Miles Teller, Chazelle updated the screenplay by featuring older characters after both actors left the project. In contrast to the rougher hues and darker themes of Whiplash, La La Land is a bittersweet exploration of artistic life and show business, set in the home of Hollywood. The three-film-old director recruited the services of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who had achieved a similar frisson of images with David O Russell’s American Hustle (2013). La La Land was shot in vivid candy colours in Cinemascope, and Sandgren won an Oscar for his efforts.
The 32-year-old director signalled his intent with the pre-credits musical sequence Another Day of Sun, set in a traffic jam in Los Angeles. It was filmed over two days with more than a hundred dancers by closing off a portion of the Los Angeles highway. Chazelle rehearsed the scene in a parking lot with choreographer Mandy Moore, shooting on an iPhone for reference. After everything was locked in place, they decided to have a dress rehearsal at the actual location, which proved to be a disaster.
“We all went in feeling pretty confident because we were quite happy with how the iPhone (footage) had worked out,” Chazelle told Indiewire. “And the dress rehearsal was a total disaster. The crane could not move the way an iPhone moves…The choreography looked different, the slant of the freeway created a lot of other challenges. Everything was just tricky. We had to go back and regroup and make some adjustments.”
The movie’s big wins at the Oscars come a year after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Choosing La La Land over Moonlight for direction and cinematography might have felt like a misstep for the Academy for some. By picking a film that was made on a budget of $1.6 million and featured a convincing portrait of African-American life for Best Picture, the voters ensured that the 87th edition of the Academy Awards will be remembered for many years to come. Oh, and Warren Beatty’s goof-up will help too.