“That car alarm is bananas!” says Emma Stone, giving voice to the general exasperation over a relentless honking outside Manhattan’s Metrograph theater. The actress and her “La La Land” director, Damien Chazelle, have come to introduce their movie “La La Land” to a worshipful crowd of Sunday morning cinephiles — who at that very moment are watching the film’s opening sequence, a monumental Los Angeles traffic jam transformed into one of the more exuberant song-and-dance numbers in recent movie memory.
Clearly, someone suggests, the car alarm is intended to be part of a low-budget, virtual-reality experience now available to moviegoers on the Lower East Side.
“Hah!” says Stone, with some exuberance of her own.
“La La Land” opens with noisy cars, but mostly it has melodies, harmonies, choreography and romance, as well as a love of the movies, transplanted to the streets of Hollywood in a naturalistic interpretation of the most unnatural of movie genres. Starring Hollywood’s hottest twosome — Stone, as the actress-cum-playwright Mia, and Ryan Gosling as the jazz pianist Sebastian — it’s sort of a movie musical for people who don’t like musicals. (The movie opens in Manhattan on Dec. 9; wider on Dec. 16.)
“That was exactly it,” says Chazelle.
“That was the aim,” quips Stone.
“We wanted to preach to the non-choir,” says Chazelle.
“The unconverted,” says Stone.
It’s Chazelle’s third feature and when it opens it will mark the third time that Stone and co-star Gosling have shared the screen (following 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love” and 2013’s “Gangster Squad”). A girl-meets-boy kind of thing, the film is replete with Chaplinesque pathos, Monk-ish music, a color scheme worthy of Kandinsky and a sizable debt to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the Jacques Demy pop opera with music by Michel Legrand.
“I’ve seen it a hundred times,” says Chazelle.
“I’ve seen it once,” says Stone, “when he screened it for the cast and crew.”
Stone took voice lessons when she was young and was appearing in “Cabaret” when she and Chazelle met. But in “La La Land,” the aesthetic is casual; neither Stone nor Gosling, whose voice resembles that of the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, has to deliver anything close to operatic. The music, by Justin Hurwitz (who scored all three Chazelle features) doesn’t really seem to test their vocal capacity.
“That’s what you think,” says Stone. “The ‘Audition Song’” — Stone’s big number, part of a dream sequence at an audition — “took a long time to work out. But what we discussed early on was that there would be a kind of softness to the vocal quality, until the ‘Audition Song,’ where I kind of belt it out.”
“I’m allergic to belting, in general,” Chazelle says.
“You’re allergic to belting?” says Stone. “I didn’t realize you were allergic. I thought you liked belting. You just don’t like a harsh vocal attack?’
“I mean in a musical,” he says. “There are exceptions, I guess. But for this I wanted it to be, the whole movie, a little more intimate. When there were more musicals being made directly for the screen, I think there was a more intimate style of performance, one that was a little more conversational, a little more underplayed. The more we rely on Broadway adaptations, the more you can feel the stage creeping onto the screen. So I wanted to hold that back and have Emma’s singing style evolve with the character. And save some ammo for her final number.”
Chazelle, who wrote the original screenplay to a movie now awash in Oscar buzz, says the more he tried to get “La La Land” made, “the more I became aware of just how many skeptics there are. I think I was living in a bubble — ‘Everyone loves musicals! Musicals are great.’ I thought as soon as I said I was making a musical, everyone would say ‘Oh! Here’s your money.’ Which was not the reality.”
No, but it helps to have the hotness of Gosling and Stone on board, and to have ventured into this territory once before: “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” the unorthodox 2009 film that began as Chazelle’s thesis film at Harvard (he temporarily dropped out to finish the movie), was a black-and-white homage to jazz and musicals, with songs popping up in the most unlikely places. “Whiplash” (2014), which won Oscars for editing, sound and the actor J.K. Simmons as a martinet music teacher (Chazelle was nominated for the script) established the director as a talent to be reckoned with, and one with the wherewithal now to get a highway ramp closed in a city (Los Angeles) infamous for its traffic.
“It was an E-ZPass ramp,” Chazelle says, with no irony. “We filled it with our own cars, and dancers and cranes, but on either end of the ramp the traffic was free-flowing. And part of what I liked was that you see actual traffic in the distance, or beneath the ramp, so all that stuff was the way it would have been on any other day. But they let us shut it down for two days.”
Los Angeles must really love movies ...
“They really love movies that will pay them to do that,” Stone says with a laugh.
“They love money,” says Chazelle. “That’s what it really is.”
Musicals at the movies
The movies and the musical have been umbilically bound since the advent of sound (“The Jazz Singer,” the first talking picture, was a musical) and every once in a while somebody decides the genre needs a reboot. Not all are as successful as “La La Land,” but they all have their idiosyncratic charms. The following are a few unorthodox musicals that tested the boundaries of the genre:
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964) Essentially an opera and often cited as the most romantic movie ever, “Umbrellas” stars Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as Guy and Genevieve, lovers who’ll be separated by war; Ellen Farner is Madeleine, who also loves Guy (Guy and Madeleine? See below); Jacques Demy directed; Michel Legrand wrote the music. The follow-up was “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967).
EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996) There’s always a strain of nostalgia running through Woody Allen’s films and the yearning here is for the old-style Hollywood musical, to which tribute is paid by a first-rate cast that bursts into song all around New York, and which includes Edward Norton, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Natasha Lyonne, Gaby Hoffman, Natalie Portman and, yes, Itzhak Perlman. Incongruity is its calling card.
DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) A rare commodity — the crime-drama musical — stars Icelandic pop star Björk as a woman who emigrates to America and finds it to be something other than the Hollywood version. Directed by perpetual bad boy Lars von Trier (Björk did the music), it’s a disturbing and brilliant film whose ending is like a punch in the face.
ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (2005) Director John Turturro’s twist on the musical features most of his actors singing along with well-known recordings of such hits as “Delilah” (Tom Jones), “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (James Brown) and “It Must Be Him” (Vikki Carr). The people singing along include James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Mandy Moore and Christopher Walken.
GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2009) Damien Chazelle’s debut film is a revisionist, black-and-white homage to “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” among other films, one in which a Busby Berkeley-style tap-dance number might break out among the kitchen crew of a Boston restaurant, and where the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra performs the score. A charmer.
— JOHN ANDERSON