Why is La La Land sweeping the awards?

Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz at the Golden Globes

Last month, “La La Land” broke the record for most Golden Globes won by a single film after snagging 7 trophies out of 7 nominations. Two weeks later, it made history again when it collected 14 Academy Awards nominations, record-tying with “All About Eve (1951)” and “Titanic (1997)”. It followed them with 8 accolades from the Critics Choice awards and and 5 Bafta Awards. And having won The Producers Guild Awards and the Directors Guild Awards, both reliable indicators for a Best Picture victory at the Oscars, it’s becoming certain that the Musical is set to make an unprecedented sweep at the Academy awards this weekend.

Musicals can hardly be described as awards magnet -the last musical to win the Best Picture Oscar was Chicago in 2002- so how did “La La Land” manage to conquer the minds and hearts of awards voters, who have traditionally favoured dark dramas?

The birth:

The idea of making this film sprung in the mind of its director, Damien Chazelle, when he was a student at Harvard in 2007. Along with his classmate Justin Hurwitz (the film’s composer), they wrote a low-budget musical about a Boston Jazz musician titled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. When they moved to Los Angeles, they reset the action there and continued writing their modern version of an old-fashioned musical. But after a quick round of meetings with the studios, they learned that Hollywood was not keen on making original musicals; they are a risky business unless they are based on Broadway hits.

Heartbroken, Chazelle moved on to another project, “Whiplash,” which went to garner Academy awards nominations and win one in the Best Supporting Actor category for J.K. Simmons, catapulting the 30-year-old director to stardom, a powerful asset he carried with him as he reintroduced his dream project to the studios but in vain.

Lucky for him, there is a risk-taking studio in Hollywood. It’s Lionsgate, who had backed Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge”, knowing that no one would touch a film from the Australian director, who was considered a pariah in the industry following his racial slurs in 2007. Known for backing innovative film-makers and less formulaic projects, Lionsgate leaped into the unknown with Chazelle.

The Film:

The studio was not disappointed by the final product. Artistically and technically, the film achieves perfection. Every frame is composed with a mathematical precision and possesses the dazzling beauty of a renaissance painting. And every element including color, music, costume, photography and performances blends harmoniously to create a cinematic masterpiece.

It draws inspiration from the old classic Musicals of the 40’s and 50’s to tell the love story of a modern couple in contemporary LA, the Mecca of the film industry. It’s realistic yet it feels like a dream and it’s nostalgic yet it feels new, which lends it a broad generational appeal.

The couple is two dreamers, an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and an ambitious Jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), who are trying to ascend to stardom. The young and old in Hollywood can easily empathize with the humiliation and pains of their endless rejections, low-paid jobs and the emptiness of waiting, and share their joys as they float in Tinseltown’s magical beauty.

Judging from the past, movies that revolved around the film industry, such as “Argo,” “Birdman,” “The Artist” and “All About Eve,” were rewarded with the highest honour: the Academy Award for Best Picture. So “La La Land” had all the ingredients of a winner but there was a caveat: it’s a musical.

The campaign:

Lionsgate was aware that musicals were not a popular genre these days, and early test screenings of the film confirmed that. Modern audiences couldn’t connect to this retro Musical. The studio had to come up with a solid campaign strategy in order to avoid a flop. Several powerful publicists and awards strategists were hired, and a screening was held for them at the studio’s offices in Santa Monica in early May last year

Among the invitees was award publicist and consultant, Lawrence Angrisani, who represents other Academy awards nominees including “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water,” “Fences” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” Angrisani fell instantly in love with the movie, but he knew that selling it to the world wouldn’t be easy. “My personal concern was initially that people wouldn’t have the same connection I had to it when I first saw it or that audiences would be turned off when they heard the word ‘Musical’,” says Angrisani, who confesses that he himself is not a big fan of musicals either. “It’s not something I rush out to see,” he adds.

So the campaign message was: “La La Land” is different; it does not function as a real musical does and it’s rooted in reality. To get that message across, industry screenings were offered everywhere around the world in order to ignite a word of mouth campaign.

Festivals dominance:

Chazelle was so nervous, he kept his eyes shut for the first 30 minutes of his film’s first premiere early last September at Venice International Film Festival, where it was received with a rapturous applause from the audience and an uncontained enthusiasm from the critics. It collected the Best Actress Award for Emma Stone, before it moved to Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and wowed its audience, who gave it their Choice Award, cementing its position as the forefront of the Awards race.

These two festivals are important indicators for awards success. Recent Oscar winners, including “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” “12 Years A Slave” and “The Hurt Locker” had their opening at the Venice Film Festival, while “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “12 Years A Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire” were the winners of TIFF’s audience Award.

No competition:

Nonetheless, September was too early to make solid predictions, and “La La Land” had some hurdles to overcome on its path to Oscar glory. Three highly anticipated dramas were yet to be released: Denzel Washington’s August Wilson’s play adaptation “Fences” and Martin Scorsese’s religious odyssey “Silence” and Ang Lee’s Iraq war drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” were lurking on the road ahead and poised to unseat the light-hearted Musical.

It’s not uncommon for award frontrunners to lose their crown to late releases. Last year, “Spotlight,” which was catapulted to the forefront of the Oscar race following its premiere at Venice International Film Festival, was galloping confidently ahead when two formidable competitors, “The Big Short” and “The Revenant,” were released in December, stealing the limelight and the important awards on the way to the Oscars night. “The Big Short” scooped the Producers Guild of America and The Writers Guild of America Awards while “The Revenant” snatched The Golden Globe, The Bafta and the Directors Guild of America top awards. Wounded, Spotlight trudged forward to the Oscar night with only one prominent trophy in its pocket: Screen Actors Guild Award for its cast- not the most reliable indicator for the Best Picture Oscar.

“The film lost steam after the release of the movie in November,” says an awards consultant, who worked on it. “So we had to do something to remind the people of the film’s important message.”

“Spotlight,” which tells the real story of the team of journalists who exposed the endemic sexual abuse of children at the Catholic church, was not cinematically spectacular like “The Revenant,” therefore its Oscar campaign had to highlight its powerful message to voters. So the publicity team decided to bring the victims of the sexual abuse to LA to speak to them.

Academy members were horrified and touched by the victims’ emotional testimonials about their traumatizing experience as innocent children at the Church. The conversation started flowing again and “Spotlight” was back in the headlines.  A few weeks later, the film snapped the coveted Oscar for Best Picture.

“La La Land” doesn’t offer a Spotlight-like message and wouldn’t have a chance competing against such serious dramas, but it has had luck on its side.  Its potential competitors failed to meet the high expectations from them. While “Fences” was able to garner some nominations and awards for the performances of its stars Washington and Viola Davis, “Silence” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” were absent from the awards race.

“La La Land” was not out of the water yet, because it was facing two other competitors, who had been on his tail since its first premiere. One is “Manchester By the Sea,” which opened at Sundance Independent Film Festival early last year and the other was “Moonlight,” which premiered at Telluride Film Festival last September. Both, however, are small, independent and low budget movies and had already been around long enough, not to make any surprise attack on the box-office hit musical.

The success curse:

With success comes high expectations. People go to see “La La Land” expecting to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Recently, I started hearing whispers of disappointment: The direction was immature; the performance was weak; the singing was abysmal and the dancing was lousy.

Some commentators charged it with racism, contesting the notion of a white guy championing the cause of staying true to the roots of Jazz, which is a uniquely black American genre. Jazz fans had an issue with the message itself, countering that letting go of traditionalism is the best way to revive this music genre.

Some complained about the lack of gay characters on the basis that LA is full of them, while others found the depiction of the female character troubling, complaining that she was mostly a passive bystander, while the male character was doing all the action and propelling her story forward. He asks her out; he introduces her to Jazz; he takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause for research; he drives to her family’s home and convinces her to come back to LA for an audition that leads her to stardom.

None of this criticism is surprising. Such a backlash is inevitable for any pop culture product that reaches stratospheric success. Had it been met with indifference by critics and audiences, most likely nobody would care so much about its racial or gender politics. Jazz fans might even be championing it, just to get more attention for their forgotten art.

In Hollywood itself, awards consultants and publicists are scratching their heads. “I can’t fathom people’s fascination with this film,” a senior awards publicist tells me. “It’s fun and good entertainment, but it has neither a social nor political message to warrant such attention from awards in such turbulent times.”  On the other hand, some suggested the current turbulence in society was what drove the masses to see such a light-hearted, romantic fantasy.

Even Angrisani is surprised by his film’s success. “I’m surprised every day the film continues to break a record,” he boasts. “But what I am most surprised with is how it connects with those people, like myself, who weren’t rushing to theatre to see it day one.”

The real consequent danger from La La Land’s triumph is making it come across as too much of a sure thing. Fickle Oscar voters may take its success for granted to opt for other contenders. But the chances for that to happen are quite slim, given that professional guilds, whose memberships overlap with the Academy’s, have recently honored it with their top awards. So If that happens then it will the biggest upset in Oscar’s history.