TORONTO — Movies aren’t what they were. Let’s wait for it on Netflix. Television is so much better right now.
Those kinds of sentiments can feel ubiquitous to anyone who cares deeply about movies, as well as for those whose love has waned. Writer-director Damien Chazelle has heard them all and he has one glorious, singing-and-dancing answer to them.
Chazelle’s luminous “La La Land,” the sensation of the fall film festival circuit, has audiences swooning for his modern-day musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The film, itself, is an unapologetically romantic argument for the movies, in all their splendor.
“You’re a part of so many of those conversations. Theaters are dying. Movies are dying, etcetera, etcetera,” Chazelle, 31, said in an interview ahead of the film’s Monday evening premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s the kind of thing where I’m either hoping they’re wrong or having to reflect: ‘Man, I must have been born 30 years too late.’ Because all I’ve only ever wanted to do is make movies for the big screen since I can remember.”
The film, which will open the Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 13 and arrive in theaters Dec. 9, stars Stone as an aspiring actress in Los Angeles who, in between soul-crushing auditions, meets a jazz pianist (Gosling) trying to stay true to the music he’s devoted himself to. They are both strivers in an unforgiving Hollywood, their technicolor dreams a faraway fantasy compared to their daily reality.
Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival, “La La Land” has taken on the aura of a revival movement, a shot in the arm for a sometimes beleaguered movie landscape. There, Stone won best actress (likely a sign of things to come in Hollywood’s coming awards season) and Tom Hanks, who has nothing to do with the movie, gushed about it.
“When you see something that is brand new, that you can’t imagine, and you think, ‘Well thank God this landed,’ because I think a movie like ‘La La Land’ would be anathema to studios. Number one, it is a musical and no one knows the songs,'” Hanks said at a festival event. He concluded ominously: “If the audience doesn’t go and embrace something as wonderful as this, then we are all doomed.”
Chazelle wrote the script to “La La Land” about six years ago, but his pleas to make the film went unanswered until his 2014 breakthrough, the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” about an aspiring jazz drummer. While the film is awash in nostalgia, it has connected not for the way it resurrects the past but for how it seeks to unite it with today, like an MGM musical let loose.
“The movie is about reconciling that with the present and realizing you have to live now — and also that that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Chazelle. “I know I have it in me to be a nostalgist. Certainly the musical lover in me, specifically. For whatever reason, the musicals I love the most are the ones of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. There are musicals since then that I love but not ones that speak to me directly. And I grew up playing jazz. So there’s a lot of old-timey stuff in my tastes or background.”
While the film’s song and dance routines resemble the breezy grace of “Singin’ in the Rain” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” they aren’t set on sound stages but in a modern Los Angeles. The barn-burning opening number takes place in a freeway traffic jam. A memorable tap-dancing scene hovers over golden-hour LA. All of it was filmed in Cinemascope.
“Part of the whole idea of this movie from the beginning was to very resolutely set it in today’s Los Angeles and even start off with the things we think of as the most annoying parts of existence in modern LA: the traffic jams, the shallow parties, the celebrity culture, the one-note industry talk of the city,” said Chazelle. “But from that, build to a love letter that’s hopefully, as a result, a more fully fleshed love letter, not just a sugar-coated portrait of the city.”
By going back to the soul of Los Angeles, the Hollywood dream factory might just be churning again.
Jake Coyle, Associated Press