I have just, a few minutes ago, stepped out of the second public showing of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and it is gorgeous. The cinematography, the score, everything, but, to show you what I mean, let me describe the first five minutes, the opening number, before the title card even showed.
The fade in starts the film above a crowded Las Angeles highway. As the camera pans across the hoods of rusting cars, idling on the freeway, we slowly become aware of the music – not the soundtrack of the film – but of the city, the music from the cars’ open windows. Each is an individual rhythm and the occupants are all engrossed in their own beats. At the next car, a girl is singing along to her radio. The music swells and she opens the door and steps out into the stopped traffic where she is joined by other young people from every other car, all singing about their lives as young out-of-work actors and actresses trying to break out in the tough world of show business. Cue title.
Now, that sounds fantastic, but this scene works to build the world of the movie, not because of the the fantasy, but because of the realism. I believed in it. The first few seconds of the film – the sun beating down on miserable people in miserable cars, trapped in place by the others around it, seemingly without reason, and certainly incapable of being understood by anyone stuck inside of it – never mind the symbolism, that could be any day of any month of the year in Las Angeles. It is real. And those few seconds grounded the film into that tangible, and dull, reality.
More than this, the emotions of the trapped occupants were felt to be real, and the transition between the realistic and the fantastic was effortless. Cinematically: the girl hums along to the radio and begins singing along. But emotionally, she experiences a literal escape from that clunker along with the emotional escapism of song and dance. It is so smooth that I was less surprised by the grand opening dance number than I was by Emma Stone’s character, Mia, breaking into normal dialogue at the beginning of the next scene.
There is much more to be said about this film. The photography is indeed beautiful and dreamlike, with carefully-composed steady shots and heavy saturation, only breaking this status quo exactly at the moment it should be broken. The acting is excellent. There were moments of near silence that Stone and Gosling told complex stories without speaking a word. The dialogue is witty and worthwhile even without the song and dance routine. The movie taken as a whole feels like a classic. By which I mean Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This is a modern Top Hat. And the final scene could be analyzed in a dozen more articles this size.
But, the entire film was set up by this scene, before we had even met any of the main characters. Without Chazelle’s masterful execution of this moment, we the audience could not have been drawn into this world where the soundtrack is real, where the song and dance is not only plausible, but expected, even hoped for.