La La Land, a musical love story about an aspiring young actress and a jazz musician trying to make it in Hollywood, is this year’s critical darling. The film just tied a record for the most Oscar nominations at the 2017 Academy Awards.
That’s no small feat for a film that once seemed as much of a fantasy as the story itself. It took six years for the movie to get made.
The modern-day musical was the brainchild of writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, who reportedly came up with the concept as students at Harvard University. It was the focus of their senior thesis, a musical short about two star-crossed lovers set in Boston that later became a full-length indie film.
But after moving to Los Angeles in 2010 and rewriting the script—now set in LA—the duo had trouble finding funding for the film. “I was told the concept and the material for La La Land seemed brazenly uncommercial,” Chazelle told the Hollywood Reporter. “The movie is not based on anything, and there are no familiar songs to build off the pre-existing fan base. And it’s a jazz musical.”
When it was eventually picked up by Focus Features—with a budget of around $1 million—the movie was picked apart. Chazelle was reportedly told to make the male lead a rock musician instead of a jazz pianist, to cut the opening number, in which characters dance atop cars roofs on a packed freeway, and eliminate the bittersweet finale.
While the script was being stripped of most of what made it special, Chazelle moved onto another project, Whiplash, a drama about a determined young jazz drummer and his tyrannical musical instructor, played by JK Simmons. It was the talk of Sundance and other film festivals in 2014, and took home three Academy Awards the following year, including an Oscar for Simmons.
Chazelle suddenly had Hollywood’s ears and eyes.
And he used that attention to make the version of La La Land that he always wanted. Lionsgate and Black Label Media took a chance on the film, as did producer Marc Platt, who helped make the Ryan Gosling-starring Drive. The movie was given a higher budget, with a nudge from Lionsgate. And it could then afford A-list actors.
It still wasn’t smooth sailing from there. There were casting issues before the filmmakers landed on Emma Stone and Gosling for the lead roles. And the movie performed poorly in test screenings, raising concerns that it would flop.
Instead, the movie, estimated to cost around $30 million (paywall), has grossed nearly $90 million at the US box office and $174 million worldwide as of Jan. 22, according to Box Office Mojo. It is the 11th highest-grossing live-action musical, according to the industry tracker, based on data that dated back to 1974.
And La La Land is spawning a new wave of lyrical storytelling in Hollywood. The New York Times reported (paywall) that there are around 20 musicals now in development.