Peter Bart: ‘La La Land’ Adds Musical Backbeat To Wide-Open Awards Race

Peter Bart
Deadline

Insiders call it “The Great Disconnect,” that moment at the Oscar show when the winner turns out to be a movie that no one in the TV audience has ever heard of. And this year there’s a growing sense that the Great Disconnect will be a retro musical, one that deftly fits that definition. It’s called La La Land, a favorite on the festival circuit that will follow in the tradition of Birdman or The Artist or 12 Years A Slave as Hollywood’s favorite film from creative outer space.

La La Land can best be described as a triumph of “almosts” – almost a musical (without enough music), almost a Fred Astaire dance spectacle (it has neither top dancers nor spectacle), and almost a love letter to Los Angeles (but with lots of traffic jams and shouted insults).

Given these realities, the marketing strategists are trying to figure out how to make the $30 million movie more accessible to a wider audience. After all, even musicals based on pop plays like Rock Of Ages or Jersey Boys have struggled at the box office. And I even lived to survive Paint Your Wagon. The casting is attractive, but La La Land’s leading players, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, were cast as lovers in two earlier films, neither a big hit (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). Nor has either performer earned renown for singing or dancing.

So how will Summit sell it? A few awards would help, and director Damien Chazelle’s first movie, an indie called Whiplash, surprised by scoring five Oscar nominations. A boyish 31-year-old, the self-deprecating Chavelle is a big success on the Q&A circuit. La La Land also could be marketed to women — even the abrasive Bad Moms soared past $100 million this year. Even the music is confounding; Gosling plays a jazz pianist (the film’s original backers wanted rock ‘n’ roll) and the score represents an unpredictable mix of pop, jazz and Hollywood traditional.

While festival audiences have been lavishing praise on La La Land, some filmgoers were also confounded by its point of view. Its creators, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz, are young Harvard classmates who decided to create a salute to Old Hollywood, yet freely admit they were perhaps more inspired by Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. As a result of their mixed focus, they were spurned by one studio after another. Focus nurtured La La Land for a while, then decided to dump it. After Whiplash registered awards success, however, the savvy Patrick Wachsberger of Summit and producer Marc Platt, who’d launched Wicked, pumped further funding into La La Land. A skimpy indie film suddenly emerged with a $30 million budget and the ensemble numbers began to get bigger.

Well, again, almost bigger. La La Land still flaunts its indie look but uses it to good advantage. When the movie is finally released December 9, filmgoers won’t see Astaire and Ginger Rogers or MGM chorus lines, but what they will see is exhilarating and fresh – the makings of a perfect disconnect.

It was Gil Cates, the man who produced over a dozen Academy Awards shows, who introduced me to that term. A gracious and witty man, Cates marveled at the surprises and contradictions of the annual Oscar ritual, which year after year saw Hollywood stars parade across the stage honoring movies that Hollywood studios would never have produced. Cates wanted the studios to support a broader range of films, not just franchises, and hoped voters would support them.

Cates would have connected with La La Land because of its energy and originality. Indeed, it would have been a Great Connect.

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