Modern films often try to hook their audience in the first few moments. More often than not, the director will resort to tricks, such as starting at the midpoint of a later action scene, then backtracking. This gimmick often falls flat and can wreck the narrative, as “Man Down” demonstrated. Occasionally this kind of opening can actually work. “Deadpool” was a great example as the intro helped to build the film’s momentum. “Miss Sloane” does something similar, but instead of action we are stunned by a fascinating monolog from the title character. But none of the films of 2016 can compare to the opening sequence in “La La Land.” It’s not a flash forward, or flashback, but a musical number.
The camera begins to pass between cars stopped atop a backed up LA highway. Music drifts out of one of the windows and soon builds to a rousing score. The occupants, each infected with this joyful tune, burst forth from their vehicles in bright primary colored clothing, singing, dancing, and leaping from one spot to another. The camera deftly moves around, over the dividing barrier and back, smoothly following characters as they frolic. Even more impressive, it appears as a single take, even though it was shot over the course of three weekends on an actual overpass. It’s a brilliant marriage of colors, sound, choreography and camera work that is rarely seen. Even if you fall in the “I don’t like musicals” camp this opening sequence will likely grab your attention.
As the crowd and traffic disperse we meet Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) two creative characters who are struggling to realize their passions in the city that “Worships everything but values nothing.” Mia works in a small coffee shop on the Warner Brothers backlot as she tries out for countless, and often humiliating, auditions. Sebastian is a piano playing Jazz zealot who obsesses over opening his own Jazz club. Although their worlds don’t intersect, Mia and Sebastian find themselves repeatedly running into one another, often not under the best circumstances. Perhaps it’s fate? Eventually, their affection grows and soon they are in love. The rest of the movie follows the course of their relationship as they inspire each other to pursue their dreams, even if these dreams may pull them further apart.
While their story arc may appear to be rather ordinary, absolutely nothing else in this movie is. Colors play an extremely important role in the film, with nearly every shot bursting forth with color, enhancing the tone and influencing our emotions. The music is wonderful throughout, but an especially endearing and almost haunting melody is assigned to their relationship. It carries so much weight by the end of the film that just hearing those simple notes is enough to induce tears. This isn’t implying that this is a sad movie, quite the contrary, there’s plenty of humor throughout. But, it certainly is an emotional movie.
Lovers of Hollywood’s golden age are in for an additional treat, as this isn’t just a love story between two people, it’s a love letter to Hollywood itself. Countless references, both seen and heard, play homage to some of the classics. It’s clear that “Singing in the Rain” and “Rebel Without a Cause” had a strong influence on Damien Chazelle’s career.
Unique live-action musicals are few and far between these days. Studios are hesitant to take a chance on one unless it has a proven track record, preferably after decades on Broadway. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle came up with the concept of “La La Land” years ago, but no one was interested in producing the film until his debut success with “Whiplash.” This, coupled with his screenwriting work on “10 Cloverfield Lane”, gave him the clout he needed for producers to take a chance on his vision. Thankfully they did, and we have not only one of the best films of 2016 but one of the most enjoyable as well. Something like this is best on experienced on the big screen, so do yourself a favor and check out “La La Land” while it’s still in theatres, even if it’s outside of something you’d typically watch.