One of La La Land’s strengths is that, for all its old-fashioned flourishes, it inhabits an LA that is recognisably contemporary and at least partly grounded in reality. Chazelle himself lived the outsider experience of both Gosling and Stone’s characters: the struggling musician and the greenhorn with movie-world aspirations. “I moved to LA . . . played some drums and got fired from the band I was playing in. At the same time, I was trying to turn out scripts, and none of them were going anywhere,” he recalls.
As a result the movie captures the allure of LA but is not blind to its dead ends. “You develop this relationship to the city at the time, and it was a tense relationship . . . an alternately inspiring and crushing experience.”
The same could be said of La La Land, which, though undeniably romantic, proves to be more of an emotional rollercoaster than some reviews might have you believe. “Every time I make a movie and I think it’s a bummer, people say it’s happy,” Chazelle observes.
“If you’re trained to be smiling and laughing for the first chunk of the movie . . . you don’t see the knife coming,” says Chazelle. But he insists that his real intention was to reflect the vicissitudes of life. “I felt like there was a way that the joy and the heartbreak could coexist.”
Here, too, Chazelle may have drawn on personal experience. He married his Harvard sweetheart Jasmine McGlade in 2010 but the couple divorced in 2014. In Whiplash the main protagonist breaks off a relationship that threatens to get in the way of his drumming, and in La La Land one of the key dramatic moments involves a choice between pursuing professional or romantic dreams. Does he think there has to be a trade-off?
“I’ve only recently been lucky enough to feel like they don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he says. “But I was, for a large part of my life, that kind of hermit, a little bit like Ryan’s character at the beginning of the movie: ‘Fuck the world, I’m going to stay in my room and write the next great American screenplay’.”