Before La La Land's opening there's a pledge to the musicals of old - or at the very least, to the wistfulness of them. Not only are the production logos reworked to be reminiscent of the fuzzy RKO title we remember from black and white movies, but we get a toying one-two of faux curtains drawing back to reveal that La La Land is presented in "Cinema-scope". It's knowing, playful and also something of a coup.
The opening of the film is a routine L.A. tailback, that plagues every rush hour commuter. Motorists bake in their stationary cars and as we glide past the open car windows and hear the mish-mash of the their chosen tunes, it's apparent something is going to happen. It's a jolt, but a familiar one, when a gal singing along to her car stereo, gets out and cheerily invites other stranded motorists to take part in the ever-increasing dance number. While we've seen this kind of routine in ads that mimic the likes of Singing in the Rain, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it's been a while since we've seen them on our updated silver screens. Yet, so devoted is writer/director Damien Chazelle to presenting the golden age of musicals, the first number is so pure and unabashed that the initial jolt soon gives way to wistful joy.
Rather than a statement of intent, Chazelle uses the introduction as much to present the joyful irony of a real life traffic jam as he does to ease you into what's to come. Musicals have always lent themselves to hyper-reality, yet never before have we seen it quite so juxtaposed with harsh reality. You see, La La Land is just as much a straight film for people who love musicals, as it is a musical for people who hate them. It's a rare thing for a film to present such conflicts in it's themes, character motivations and narratives, yet manage and conduct the orchestra of contention quite so perfectly. It's about chasing dreams and losing them. Joy and pain. Success and loss. Celebration and sadness...and everything in between. "This is the dream! It's conflict and it's compromise, and it's very, very exciting!" Says Ryan Gosling's Sebastian and it underpins everything that happens during this skittish sojourn.
Similarly, the frequency of La La Land's musical numbers, go hand-in-hand with the ups-and-downs of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia's (Emma Stone) exploits. The heady feeling of new love is presented as a hill top hustle, complete with a perfect magic hour view of Los Angeles. Yet it's still kept grounded. While the song is consummately crooned and the dance steps in time, it's intentional that our couple aren't quite on par with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, which only makes it the more enchanting. However, it's not just the flourishes where La La Land excels. Gosling and Stone perfectly stretch to reach the acting notes. Whether teasing, charming, inspiring or fighting one another, they completely convince as a very real couple struggling to make their dreams come true in Tinsel Town. Where the juxtaposition of breaking into song to deliver inner monologues should annoyingly upstage the drama, instead it's a deftly layed out stave in which the narrative plays it's chorus.
La La Land is just like a song that hooks itself into your subconscious. Our love and appreciation for it are just as dependent as the moment in time that we hear it. How it resonates later has just as much to do with it's groove as what we're going through at that time. After all, who isn't chasing a dream or making compromises each and every day?
5* - LA Instrumental