Having tied for the most ever amount of Oscar nominations, La La Land is certainly captivating the minds and imaginations of whoever goes to see it. But why is it so special? What is it about La La Land that is making people lose themselves in its world, its music, its characters, and its romance? How does it consistently impress both fans of musicals and people usually ambivalent to the genre (such as myself)?
Taking it from the top – if you’ll believe it, that pun was completely unintentional – it’s vital to mention that La La Land is a technical masterpiece. In the opening sequence alone, the film demonstrates astonishing coordination between choreography, cinematography, and camera movement. Focusing on one individual and then gradually garnering more, the camera manages almost to choreograph the scene in itself: following one person, then moving on to another so the previous individual can get into position. The camera’s various panning movements anticipate the action, placing the audience on a grounded level alongside much of the performance. Like an establishing shot, this opening sequence draws the spectator into the musical instead of leaving them distanced from the action of the narrative through the camera’s gaze.
Just prior to this opening, the audience is hit with a classic “Cinemascope” logo that immediately jolts them into a nostalgic frame of mind. Through this, the film not only immediately instills an atmosphere of nostalgia by linking it to the “Golden Age of Hollywood” cinematic openings, but also opens up channels of grandeur, ushering the audience into a larger experience in which they are immersed by the film.
One of La La Land’s great strengths is that it brings this cinematic grandeur and nostalgia for an idealised past into the audience’s everyday life, even opening with one of the most mundane situations of all: the traffic jam. The first two musical set pieces are situated respectively on a highway as people are stuck in traffic, and at a rather dull party that Mia (played by Emma Stone), would rather not be attending. These instantly recognisable and relatable situations draw the audience into La La Land, as the audience see their own life transported into the fantastical paradigm of the musical. The hints of nostalgia created as La La Land refers back to the cinematic musicals of the past – with direct references to the likes of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Casablanca (1942), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – is juxtaposed against the film’s contemporary L.A. setting, complete with iPhones, Priuses, and other modern conveniences. These juxtapositions are most frequent at the start of the film, as it becomes the audience becomes immersed in La La Land: surrounded by situations such as the dull ordinariness of traffic or tedious parties, the audience can find a “Golden Age” moment within their own lives.
These musical set pieces are intriguing because they are cleverly woven into the narrative of the film as a whole. The main difficulty I usually find when watching most cinematic musicals is that their tendency to break into song snaps me out of the film’s world, as the elaborateness and high energy of the big musical numbers can be jarring compared to the rest of the film in which they are situated. Such moments exist early on in La La Land, but are filmed in such a way that they help immerse the audience in, rather than separate them from, the narrative of the film as a whole. The camerawork is beautiful: maneuvering through the crowd using techniques reminiscent of Birdman’s “a single-take” illusion. It involves the audience at once putting them in the middle of a busy highway consumed by musicality or in the middle of a swimming pool, spinning around as the music infects the energy of the dull party and people begin diving in all around the camera’s perspective. While the former of these two is a little jarring with its surroundings, it does lay the groundwork for the musical setting and interweaves the music with the narrative. The latter is set just as Mia is convinced by her friends to go out, and then continues at a party, two situations in which the music can be blended into the narrative easily and therefore keep the audience immersed in La La Land.
These foundation-like set pieces pave the way for the movie to grow a more subtle reciprocity with its musical nature, most of the time coming across as tame rather than bombastic. Instead of being loud and dominating, a large crowd of people singing begins to be cultivated as a motif: less an excuse for an elaborate romp across a studio, and more about the ebbs and flows of Mia and Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling’s character) growing relationship. Something available to directors when creating movie-musicals, is the ability to downsize musical numbers and create a more intimate dynamic between the screen “performer” and the viewer. La La Land achieves this to great success as viewers are drawn to the action in a way not often possible on the stage.
This correlates with film theorist Andre Bazin’s basic idea that cinema allows one a “liberty of action in regard to space, and freedom to choose your angle of approach to the action” and hence gives the setting “a breadth and reality unattainable on the stage”. It additionally, according to Bazin, “free[s] the spectator from [their] seat and by varying the shots give[s] an added quality to the acting”. Instead of abiding by the usual movie-musical convention of retaining a pseudo-distinction between the audience and cinematic “stage”, La La Land enacts the advantages of film as a medium according to Bazin: the members of the audience are immersed within the film gradually, and the intimacy of the camera helps the music lull them into La La Land. This makes the narrative relatable and investing, and the later musical performances more enthralling and less jolting.
Two of these pivotal later musical numbers are “City of Stars”, a song that occurs at symbolic and significant points in the lives and careers of the central couple, and “Late for the Date”, a theme which, when used correctly within the film, effectively charts the mood of their relationship. “City of Stars”, as well as being used consistently as a refrain throughout the film, becomes significant in its second major appearance. Compared to its debut, occurring as a lone Sebastian wanders along an L.A. pier, the second is transformed into a duet with Mia. Instead of the solemn and almost fragmentary initial sequence where the “City of Stars” is in doubt because both Mia and Sebastian aren’t symbolically at the points in their life where they wish to be, the time between its debut and its repetition sees the song flourish. The time the characters have spent together and how they have developed has enhanced the song: they have made the city their “City of Stars”.
This music-as-motif technique becomes all the more apparent during the planetarium sequence, when “Late for the Date” becomes more symphonic, resonating with the astounding visual sequence as the two dance through the planetarium’s space. This fantastical sequence where the real and the imaginary flawlessly combine is again aided by the benefits Bazin ascribed to film as a medium: the camera welcomes the audience into the planetarium with the couple, and as the music begins to chart the emotional heights reached by Mia and Sebastian, they begin swirl and float on screen, lifted into the heavens before the audience’s eyes and deepening our understanding of their feelings at that moment.
The true beauty of this use of music though is that the director, Damien Chazelle – who, incidentally, I still have not forgiven for denying us just ten more minutes of Whiplash – combines the musical score with an unconventional ending to deliver something truly unique. Heart-breaking as it was, it was refreshing to have the film’s plot go in an unexpected direction. For Mia and Sebastian to be defined ultimately by their dreams instead of by their relationship was an optimistic end that feels more resolute, and more memorable than the traditional happy ending. Through La La Land’s finale, “Epilogue”, the audience is treated to the what-could-have-been. Filmed in the style of a homemade movie, the film’s final musical notes seem to strike at the viewers’ presumptions of the Hollywood musical. In a great meta-cinematic touch, Mia and Sebastian themselves watch this final film-within-a-film, and the cinematic audience watches not only with what-could-have-been, but what-is as they observe La La Land’s protagonists watch this final film. Imbued with such raw emotion, the music guides the spectator’s reaction to different moments but deconstructs the happy ending, the musical of times past is fantasy: these characters are free to decide their own futures and do not have to stand by what is dictated by tradition.
Reflecting a myriad of emotions and condensing narrative motion into the film, the audience is given the resolution they so desperately crave. But in those last shots, as the music started with a lull into a crescendo and descends back into a lull and the last few notes of “Late for the Date” ring out. Sebastian gives a knowing smile to Mia, who returns it promptly. Each knows it wasn’t about their, or the other’s respective ending: it was about their effect on each other, and their relationship and bond to one another. Without that, they wouldn’t have had that brief time in La La Land. Without the intelligent combination of the immersive possibilities of cinema to the musical genre, neither would we.
 André Bazin, What is Cinema?: Volume One (University of California Press, 2004), 86.