No one moves to LA for love. Romance seekers with a poetic bent flock to cities like Paris or New York in search of magic, but LA is more sleight-of-hand, more glitter than gold. It thrives on the promise of being discovered and becoming the person you dream yourself to be, and the beauty of the sunny California landscapes. LA also maintains a reputation as a smoggy, arid sprawl with a hollow center, making it an easy target for cynics. This contrast earned LA its not-so-pejorative nickname La La Land, and it’s this conflicted earnestness that is the center of the film.
La La Land opens to a crane shot of a traffic jam on a freeway listening to isolated music in their cars, some singing, some idly resting their heads against their hands as they wait. The camera stops on a woman in a colorful dress as she sings, leaves the car and initiates a technically stunning set piece that involves the entire overpass in a choreographed number filmed with a combination of cranes and a steadicam. The scene includes bands waiting in the backs of trucks to perform their part as soon as the door is opened. The scene is edited well enough that it gives the illusion that it was filmed in one take, Once the song ends, the dancers get back in their cars and continue honking against the frustration of being stuck in a traffic jam.
The intro song perfectly sets up the film, as it depicts a surreal scene that is so precise that the audience is taken in and suspends disbelief immediately. The lyrics in the song, ‘Another Day of Sun’, suggest irony but still cheer for the people who want to be a part of the artifice: “The Technicolor world made out of music and machine/ It called me to be on that screen/ And live inside its sheen.” It’s difficult to describe just how entertaining this scene is, and how effectively it prepares the viewer for the rest of the film. Readers who haven’t seen the movie are correct if they think I was hoodwinked.
We meet the main characters when the number is finished, with Emma Stone giving Ryan Gosling the finger and he honks his horn while shaking his head disapprovingly. The audience and the characters themselves know they are going to be together as they sing about how odd it is that they continue to meet while moving from disdain to mild chemistry.
The leads are charming and funny, which helps because they carry the whole movie. They aren’t the young, naive characters that Chazelle originally cast Emma Watson and Miles Teller for, and it is hard to imagine this movie with those actors. Emma Stone continues to bring terrific performances to most of her movies, and Ryan Gosling can get a lot of acting mileage from the expressions around his eyes. Damien Chazelle does a pretty good job as director, I guess.
Just look at that face.
But let’s get back to the heart of La La Land. The characters endure trials, tribulations and whatever coffee people in southern California drink. They have dreams as artists and they don’t want to compromise their integrity. This might sound trite, but the characters are convincing and it’s really difficult not to get caught up in the romance and their aspirations. Emma Stone even sings a song titled ‘The Fools Who Dream’ at a pivotal moment in the film, and it is very affecting. Some people might find it too sentimental, but Stone deserves a lot of credit for saving it from becoming too cloying.
La La Land is full of nostalgia for older Hollywood movies, and uses old tropes to keep the viewer entertained. It has a lot of love for the artists who travel to LA or anywhere else to realize their dreams, and although the odds of becoming a star are extreme, someone has to perform for the audience. There are a lot of criticisms to make of La La Land, like what happened to Rosemarie DeWitt’s character, and why is she in the movie at all? Or why does the progression of the story sacrifice all ensemble dance pieces later in the film? But the film is about emotion, and you get it from little things like the sound of a car horn or big things like bittersweet moments that the audience knows are impossible but get anyway, just to have it taken away when the story returns to reality.