It will forever be remembered as the film that won the Academy Award and then didn’t. But for many, it should have. Of course, the Hollywood Foreign Press had the luxury of rewarding both Moonlight and La La Land with Golden Globes for Best Drama and Musical or Comedy. The Academy had to choose one over the other, and it was, to say the least, controversial – if nothing else for the way the announcement played out: first declaring the musical the winner and then reversing in favor of Moonlight after moments of excruciating live-TV confusion.
Damien Chazelle’s musical was a homegrown product. Following his Oscar-nominated Whiplash, he enlisted the help of his friends, composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Ben Pasek and Justin Paul, and together they created the most original musical to come out of Hollywood in 60 years, the last being Gigi. Chazelle even wanted his Whiplash star Miles Teller to play the lead, but he opted out for more money.
After premiering at the Venice Festival, the movie captured the hearts of everyone who saw it, and by the time it was screened for the Academy members it already had a broad following. The basic premise was nothing new: aspiring actress Mia and jazz musician Sebastian fall in love but then, when success beckons, their relationship falls apart. Surprisingly the screenplay had been conceived when Chazelle was a student at Harvard University. He and his classmate, Justin Hurwitz, had explored the concept as their senior thesis. After graduating, they tried to interest studios in the project, but no one was buying.
It was only after Chazelle hit it big with Whiplash that Summit Entertainment committed to making the film. Their $30 million investment eventually grossed an astounding $445 million. Emma Stone. who won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for her performance as Mia, had met Chazelle and Hurwitz in 2014 when they came backstage to admire her performance in Cabaret.
Ryan Gosling, who played Sebastian, had once been a member of the Mickey Mouse Club along with Justin Timberlake and he knew his way around a song. The rest of the cast was comprised of his Oscar-winning Whiplash star J. K. Simmons, as well as Finn Wittrock, Rosemarie DeWitt, and John Legend in a key role. The film was shot in 60 Los Angeles locations including the Angels Flight trolley in Downtown, homes in the Hollywood Hills, the Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena, the Warner Bros. studio lot, the Grand Central Market, Hermosa Beach's Lighthouse Cafe, the Chateau Marmont Hotel and the Watts Towers, with many scenes requiring only one take.
The opening sequence, shot on the intercession between the 110 and the 105 freeways in south Los Angeles, involved over 100 dancers. The award-winning songs were composed by Hurwitz. who collaborated with lyricists Ben Pasek and Justin Paul, who had just hit it big on Broadway with their Tony award-winning Dear Evan Hansen. The film ended up with six Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes.
All told, it was a fairytale romance, marred only by Moonlight taking away its Oscar – and an announcement snafu that will forever live in Awards infamy.