The magical and the mundane: right from the (brilliant) opening shot, in which the camera glides past a row of cars in a traffic jam, each emitting the drone of a news station or bumping a hip-hop song, writer/director Damien Chazelle both juxtaposes and intertwines the two. The opening changes from a low, slow camera move past honking cars in the gridlock to a breathtaking, bravura musical number that’s a masterpiece in dance choreography and kinetic camera work. The magical set piece (hundreds of Californians dancing atop their cars) is set to the song, “Another Day in the Sun,” the lyrics and energy a testament to the dreamers who continue dreaming. It is, indeed, another day in the California sun, but as the music dies down and the magic ends, the gridlocked cars begin to honk again. We’re no longer in “la la land.”
It is here we meet our protagonists (the respective boy and girl of this simple “boy meets girl” story). Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), is a jazz pianist struggling after losing his club to a scam. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, suffering through endless awkward and painful auditions to no avail. The key word here, of course, is “struggling,” and both are skilled artists in their own medium. Both are, presumably, a part of the magical opening sequence. This is the heart of La La Land – and what better a genre to tell this story than the musical? The genre is inherently escapist and fantastic, and characters often break into song to escape the mundane. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren take it a step further – color and lighting and audacious camera moves make La La Land even more romantic than it already is, with the lights often dimming until Gosling and Stone are effectively the only two in any crowded room. The high romance of their courtship (and respective dreams of artistic success) is often juxtaposed with the harsher, less beautiful, realities (the nature of love and life and even dreams depends on some compromise). A gorgeous moment overlooking the valley, in which Gosling and Stone are perfectly positioned on a roadside bench, is interrupted by a chirping cellphone. Mia’s apartment is bursting with color and style, its exterior brown and lined with brimming trash cans.
As compelling as these (beautiful) juxtapositions are, the real magic of La La Land is in the way it doesn’t merely stop at that. Indeed, Chazelle is undeniably examining the way that romance and dreams and love and reality are all seemingly in conversation and conflict with one another, but La La Land is most beautiful when it finds the ways in which romance and reality are intertwined, rather than in opposition. In one scene, Sebastian whistles alone on a pier jetting out into the ocean. It is dusk, and Sandgren shoots the lights in a way that renders them ethereal orbs against the pink sky. The final shot on this pier lingers not on Sebastian, but on an older couple gently dancing in the gorgeous California sunset. A moment of romance and reality.
La La Land is so joyous, so visually sumptuous, it’s surprising how difficult of a film it ends up being, landing hard on a note of melancholy that sounds so real despite the (truly) magical climactic sequence that precedes it. Chazelle finds so much magic in the mundane, whether it’s the L.A. skyline beaming up into the purple evening, or an extreme close-up on two hands fumbling together into a first embrace. Reality and escapism both hit in equal doses and even as the contradictions of life set in during its final moments Chazelle captures the magic and romance in reality, grounding his ode to dreamers in hard emotional truths.