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In the La La Land of Dreams

LA LA DVDEach year after the Academy Award nominations have been announced, I begin a manic quest to see as many of the top movie contenders as I can. I’m apparently not the only one who needs to catch up because theaters across the county hold marathons screenings in those weeks before the Oscar ceremony.

I haven’t had the time to sit in a darkened movie theater for a few weekends so I watch those nominated films that are available on video or On Demand at home in the comfort of my own easy chair. Or I scramble from theater to theater in those last few weeks, always missing a few movies that seem to only be screened at the art sports in and around Boston. (Luckily, we have a terrific little gem of a theater in the town next door at the Dedham Community Theater and they always have a handful of Oscar candidates on either of their two big screens.)

This past March, somewhere between Manchester By the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge, I found myself with a few hours to spare outside of a New Jersey multiplex. I reclined comfortably in front of a screening of La La Land. I didn’t expect much. I knew it was a musical and I’d heard that it starred that handsome Ryan Gosling. I’d read some mixed reviews online and heard the criticisms, but I was certainly curious and I am a sucker for musicals.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself smiling broadly during the opening number and I never stopped.

One thing’s for sure – there is nothing like falling in love when you least expect it. And I fell hard for La La Land, dragging my husband Gerry to Legacy Place the next week.

There were some terrific competitors for the Oscars in all of the categories this year. I gritted my teeth through Hacksaw Ridge (war makes absolutely no sense to me), cheered along the women mathematical whizzes in Hidden Figures, and cried with others at the end of Manchester By the Sea. La La Land, on the other hand, was simply a toe-tapping, shoulder-wiggling, sing-along film.

I and others were surprised when La La Land was announced as Best Picture during the Academy Awards. Sure, La La Land was an experience, a kick, and so much fun. So, when a the unbelievable mix-up was announced, I was also only slightly disappointed when the honor was taken back from La La Land and given to Moonlight. Most of sat in shock awe merely wondering how the heck it had happened. What a fiasco!

La La Land was released on DVD on April 26 (our library has two copies), I bought my own copy to shelve among my other favorite musicals at home. I watched the film this past weekend with the commentary turn on. I was surprised by the youthful chatter of writer/director Damien Chazelle and musical composer Jason Hurwitz. I was even more surprised when I realized they were born in 1985 and that they were younger than my youngest child.  Chazelle and Hurwitz are 32 years old THIS year.  When La La Land was ready for release in 2016, the two young men had already worked on it for six years. If you do that simple math you’ll realize they were 25 when they started their La La Land journey.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle was born in Providence, RI but his family moved to Princeton, NJ where he graduated from Princeton High School as a film buff and musician. It was at college at Harvard that he met fellow Harvard classmate, musician Jason Hurwitz from Wisconsin, when they had both joined a small British-inspired pop band, Chester French.  In their sophomore year, they became roommates and abandoned Chester French and pop music for film.

During their years at Harvard they concentrated on filmmaking – Chazelle on cinematography and Hurwitz on musical scoring and composition. Chazelle wrote and directed an 84-minute, black-and-white musical shot in and around Boston – Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Hurwitz composed the music. Several years after graduation from Harvard, the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 to much acclaim.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench strikes many of the same chords that the 2016 musical La La Land does. It’s a story of a musician and a girlfriend finding their way in a sometimes difficult world and working through romance that don’t always end the way we’d like.

After graduating from college and living in Los Angeles, the city of dreams for aspiring filmmakers, actors, and musicians, Chazelle and Hurwitz tried to sell their concept of La La Land. Studios and producers were reluctant to fund the film. In the meantime, however, they collaborated on Whiplash, a story inspired by Chazelle’s musical education in Princeton, N.J. An 18-minute short version screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and soon received the backing for the full-feature film starring J. K. Simmons. Simmons won multiple awards for his role as best supporting actor in Whiplash (2014.)

And that’s what it took to get the La La Land story and concept in front of some big money. Funders gave the producers a budget of $30 million. Enthusiastic big-name actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone signed on. Filming began in 2015 and within forty days the score, six original songs, and the acting was a wrap. After a year of editing, the musical was released in time for the holiday season in late 2016. The rest is history. La La Land was in lights. The brilliant kind. It has grossed nearly $436 million so far.

In their senior year at Harvard, Chester French (the band that both Chazelle and Hurwitz abandoned to concentrate on films and musicals) was courted by some top record labels. Both the aspiring filmmaker and hopeful composer thought they’d blown their chances at fame. Life has interesting twists and turns however. Less than a decade later they defied the odds of Los Angles and ended up with a big dream come true.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte’s column in the May 4th issue of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.


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