Song and color are evident from the very first scene, which opens with a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway. Cars are crammed motionless, bumper to bumper, with each occupant listening to his or her own music. Intentionally or not, it’s a perfect dramatization of the much-derided opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”
Yet merge they do, thanks to Chazelle’s cinematic magic. A woman in a battered Chevy begins singing to herself and steps out of her vehicle. She is followed by another driver, and another. The musical number continues expanding until dozens of commuters are on the roofs and hoods of their cars, singing, dancing, performing flips and skateboard tricks, and celebrating, en masse, “Another Day of Sun.”
And then it’s over, as quickly as it began. The music stops, the spontaneous revelers return to their cars, and traffic begins to move. Or at least most of it does. A distracted Mia (Emma Stone) is still stopped in her Prius, practicing lines for an audition. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), stuck behind her in his Buick convertible—this being Los Angeles, cars define character—honks angrily. As he pulls around her, she gives him the finger. Ah, love.
Nor is this the last time the duo will meet-uncute. Following a soulless party in “one of those big glass houses” in the hills (though one enlivened by another spontaneous musical number), Mia stumbles upon Sebastian playing piano in a restaurant and is entranced. But Sebastian—who has just been fired for straying from the approved holiday song list—brusquely shoulders past her on his way out the door.
It’s not until their third chance encounter that affection begins to bloom. And even this meeting is bookended by Mia making fun of Sebastian’s participation in an ’80s cover band—moral: never ask a self-described “serious musician” to play A Flock of Seagulls—and by the two soft-shoeing their way through a song expressing their mutual lack of romantic interest: We’ve stumbled on a view that’s tailor-made for two. What a shame the two are you and me. (With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella—Mia even takes off her party shoes—the song is titled “A Lovely Night.”)
But the seeds have been sown. Soon Mia is showing Sebastian the Casablanca window and he is taking her to Rebel Without a Cause at the Rialto—and, afterward, to the Griffith Observatory itself, where the two will literally dance their way up into the stars. Los Angeles is rarely portrayed as a prime venue for romance. But in Chazelle’s hands it quickly earns its standing as the subject of another Mia-Sebastian duet, “City of Stars.”
The two lovers will, of course, face compromise and conflict: between love and their respective showbiz dreams, and even over the precise nature of those dreams. Sebastian, especially, grapples with questions of commercial success versus remaining true to the classic jazz of which he is an ardent apostle. Happy endings can be hard to achieve, even in the movies.