In La La Land, the acclaimed new movie-musical from writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Sebastian and Mia, two struggling artists in Los Angeles. Sebastian is a jazz aficionado who wants to open his own club, but can’t get much further than low-paying temporary gigs like playing piano for a no-nonsense restaurant owner (J.K. Simmons). Meanwhile, Mia is a talented actress who’s been auditioning for years without any sort of breakthrough. They both have it tough, but only Sebastian has to wear a keytar.
That’s right: If the idea was to fill out the underpopulated Netflix genre of Surefire Oscar-Contending Musicals in Which Ryan Gosling Plays a Keytar, La La Land succeeds. “Well, when you’re working with big movie stars,” Chazelle explained to me last week with a laugh, “it’s sort of like going to prison: You have to make someone your bitch on the first day.”
Sebastian is no happy keytar player: Forced to accept another demeaning paycheck gig, he dons 1980s duds and that humiliating keytar to play pop music at a fancy Hollywood garden party. Gosling proved to be no more enamored of the instrument than his character. Said Chazelle: “He likes to joke that on his first day on set, I had his character get fired by my actor from Whiplash, J.K., and on the next day, I made him wear a keytar. He was like, ‘I see what you’re doing here.’”
To compound his embarrassment further, Mia makes Sebastian take her keytar request: “I Ran,” by well-coiffed ‘80s band A Flock of Seagulls. I had but one protest for Chazelle, though: That song, as well as A-ha’s “Take On Me” (which Sebastian plays at the beginning of the scene), are delicious pop bops that ought not be treated as shameful guilty pleasures. “I’m glad you feel that way — it’s partly why I picked them,” Chazelle told me. “I didn’t want the music in a fun scene like that to be unenjoyable to listen to. I mean, I fuckin’ love those songs, but I know Sebastian would hate them.”
In fact, Chazelle chose those songs with great care, since they’re among the few tunes in the movie that weren’t expressly written for La La Land. “It was very thought-out and specific about where we would allow ourselves to hear music that exists outside of the movie,” said Chazelle. “I love that idea of a movie that’s built on rhymes and echoes, where you’re hearing little snippets everywhere, but it all feels like it’s in conversation with each other. It’s something you see in old Fred-and-Ginger movies, and something you definitely see in Young Girls of Rochefort and those old Jacques Demy movies. You hear snatches of sound from the windows, and you might not realize it, but it’s part of a melody that you’re going to hear later. So it’s a musical landscape that’s very coherent, and we had to be careful with where we would puncture that with music that did not belong.”