“People love what other people are passionate about. You remind people of what they forgot.”
If I were to take away one phrase from La La Land that showed me how great a film it was, it would be that line by Mia (Emma Stone), even though it was said during a tough time in the film. There was a time where La La Land received a lot of criticism, and I have to admit that if you don’t love it, it’s a film that is very easy to hate. Despite that, I knew deep in my heart that this film was special – so special that I watched it in the cinemas twice (the last time I did that was for Avengers in 2012). I’ve seen it a couple of times since then, and I can’t help but think in my mind all the things that made this film as lovely as it is; and it’s time I wrote it all down.
I will forever love what Damien Chazelle had in his mind when he wrote La La Land’s story. It’s not exclusively about Mia or Seb, it’s about Mia AND Seb. After “Another Day Of Sun”, Chazelle introduces us to his characters in their first scenes; Seb is a musician who is finding contentment in jazz music, and Mia is an aspiring actress. We follow Mia’s story until she reaches a point she crosses paths with Seb again, and we are thrown back to see his side of life – eventually we find ourselves again at their crossroads, where they have included us in a meeting that will change their lives.
Mia works in a coffee shop, and when a popular actress walks in, you can see on her staring face that is the type of person she hopes to be one day. From her first audition we see her versatility, it just so happens luck is always against her. This is something that Emma Stone delivers brilliantly, just by the expression of her face you can understand what she is thinking, and she wants you to feel what she feels. Seb is a jazz singer, who knows that the genre is dying, and tries to find ways to keep it alive. He lives alone, without insurance, with the dream that he would have his own jazz club. Luck too doesn’t seem on his side as he has trouble with money, and can’t play jazz where he works.
A season passes and things haven’t changed for them both, Mia has unsuccessful auditions and Seb is reluctantly playing pop songs on keyboard at parties. Tension build when Mia tests Seb, and they proudly narrate their misfortunes. There is visible conflict, seeing that the beautiful view of Los Angeles couldn’t be appreciated in the presence of each other, but would have to do. They end up spending time together, explaining the stories behind their misfortunes (or as they see it, their dreams); we even learn about Mia’s aunt, who played an important in her life just as jazz pioneers had for Seb. They find attraction for each other when they go out again, at the cinema and observatory, and all worries seem to have disappeared.
Into the summer, Mia and Seb are together and enjoying every minute together. They are suddenly pulled into reality when they remember the aspirations they had. Mia writes a one-woman play where she’ll star, and in an effort to help jazz live on Seb joins his old friend Keith in an pop fusion-jazz band. They begin to see difficulties as Mia quits her job to prepare for her play alone on a small budget while Seb is clearly reluctant about his stance on jazz against how Keith envisions it to be. Things can even tougher when they both realize it during a long-overdue dinner date, ironically happening in the “fall” (I even like how the closing of the Rialto acts a symbolism in this sequence). It’s heart-wrenching to see that it’s Mia who gives up first, announcing that she can’t take another failure and wants to take a break.
An opportunity comes up for Mia after a casting director enjoyed her play. She’s already given up, but a motivating visit by Seb convinces her to try again. In the audition, Mia tells the story of her aunt who was her inspiration for being an actress. After the audition, they contemplate about the state of their relationship (as well as the view of the Griffith Observatory), and what the future holds for them. Winter returns, fast forward five years, and Mia is now the successful actress capturing the attention of people in the coffee shop while Seb finally has his own jazz club, but to the heaviness of our hearts they aren’t together. They stumble upon each other in his club, where Seb plays their theme and a fantasy is shown to us should have things gone perfectly right. Before Mia leaves, she shares a glance with Seb, smiling at each other because their dreams had finally come true; and though they may not be together, they are happy for what each has done for the other.
In many years’ time, the highway scene will probably be remembered as iconic. In a continuous six-minute shot (with hidden cuts that audiences never notice), 150 dancers come together on a traffic-filled highway in full synchronization, what makes this remarkable is that choreographer Mandy Moore carefully planned out the steps, making sure each dancer or character enters and exits on cue & hit the right beat (even explains that speakers were hidden all along the highway). The song is “Another Day Of Sun”, which is the story of people wishing to find a life in Los Angeles. Sounds familiar? It’s a prelude of La La Land, about two characters who are chasing their dreams.
There is something about Seb that makes me feel he is the real hero of the film. Having the dreamy Ryan Gosling portray him adds to the fact that he is a character you can’t help but love and wish all the best – even though he doesn’t get everything he wants. In fact, during a beautifully lit scene in his bedroom, he announces things “they’re sure of”, that he will call his restaurant Chicken-on-a-Stick and Mia’s play will be a success – both of which don’t happen. It can be said that he prefers things his way, but it shows that he has no one else to rely on or get along with.
And yet he makes an effort with Mia, who although makes fun of his life’s aspirations, still takes her to her car (with a dance along the way) up a hill even when his own car was just a few steps from the party. He offers to take Mia to see Rebel Without A Cause “for research”, as a way of helping her prepare for an audition. He tries to catch up to Mia’s play, because even in the midst of their issues, he still cares. Remember the second (or third?) time we heard Seb’s car horn? “Is that gonna happen every time?” is what Mia’s roommate said, and every single time was to grab Mia’s attention – even the first (and second?) time on the highway, and the last time when he went to her house. He has full belief that Mia will find success, even if it means not having him in his life.
The best thing about Seb is that he values the little things. He finds Mia in “the coffee shop by Warner Bros.” and even remembers that she is seeing someone. He knows what kind of TV show Mia got a callback for, “Dangerous Minds meets The OC”, even when she herself doesn’t remember. Mia is even astounded that he remembers where she lives, “Boulder City, the house in front of the library”. To top it off, Seb names his jazz club after Mia’s suggestion, and there is no chicken in sight.
Right from the beginning, you’ll see that La La Land is a tribute to the golden age of cinema and the attributes that came with it. Summit Entertainment’s logo has been changed to an aged sign, and CinemaScope transitions from BW to colour while expanding the length of the screen. Ingrid Bergman’s giant face (because Casablanca is very influential here) and bunches of old movie posters are plastered on Mia’s wall. As Mia walks the streets of Los Angeles, she passes a wall that displays the many celebrities of old Hollywood (Chaplin, Brando, Monroe, Wayne, etc). Seb shares a brief history of jazz music, and later during “Summer Montage”, everyone in the Lighthouse Café is a person of color except for Mia and Seb. A silhouette scene during “Epilogue” attributes to the old cut-out shadow plays of the past, and globe cuts in to show an old transition.
La La Land mirrors a lot of classic films, and I’ll name a few here that I noticed, or are mentioned in a video I saw. “Another Day Of Sun” has hints of Grease and West Side Story. The film that brings Mia and Seb together is Rebel Without A Cause at the Rialto, where they even visit Griffith Observatory. One of the most notable references is Singin’ In The Rain – as he begins “A Lovely Night” Seb is mimicking Gene Kelly’s famous gesture and the production sets when Seb picks up Mia at the coffee shop. “Epilogue” has vast attributes to An American In Paris, Singin’ In The Rain, Funny Face, Broadway Melody of 1940, and more.
The editing varies from quick cuts (pouring of coffee, placing of straws/record, taking a sandwich, stove burning), to highway driving with neon signs popping up onscreen, to side-by-side circular shots of concurring events; in fact the pouring of champagne is reminiscent of triumphant film releases. These circular transitions are also similar to the simple transition old films had before, and the first of these come during the halfway mark of the film – with a slight pause before the film resumes, it is almost a signal for an intermission; just as earlier lengthy films used to do. Those transitions in the Lighthouse Café from Mia dancing to Seb playing the piano, pure camerawork.
If there is someone I love more than Damien Chazelle in La La Land, it’s his college buddy and composer Justin Hurwitz. In “Another Day Of Sun” and “Someone In The Crowd” we enjoy gleeful sequences that seem continuous, with choreography to match the emotion. Later in the film, a piano version of the song (“Engagement Party”) is played by Seb as Mia goes home to Boulder City after her play failed – indicating there was “someone in the crowd” who could have made a difference in the failure (but Seb wasn’t there to be that “someone”) – while Seb’s sister is now engaged, happily finding her “someone”. In an ironic sense, the contradictory lyrics and actions in “A Lovely Night” only brings the two characters together.
When Seb plays “Mia And Sebastian’s Theme” for the first time, he was drifting from a contained barrier of what society tells him to do – at the same time, when Mia first hears it she is contemplating her rotten luck in the past few hours; the song brings them together in one room. Later on Seb plays the song during a photo shoot, and he realizes he should be somewhere else. In my favourite song in the entire film, “Audition”, Mia tells the story of her aunt which acts as a tribute to those who chase their dreams amidst all struggles.
During “Planetarium”, no words are exchanged but audiences can tell by the music and movements that Mia and Seb are attracted to each other; it can even be further explained that the song originates from their theme. The wonderful effects of the fantasy scene adds to the beauty of the music. Again there are no words during “Epilogue”, where Hurwitz brilliantly mashes “Mia And Sebastian’s Theme”, “Another Day Of Sun”, “Someone In The Crowd”, “Audition (original and jazz)”, “Planetarium” (where they recreate their dance), and “City Of Stars” with stunning production design to match.
Everyone knows “City Of Stars”, but behind the happiness of seeing their dreams come true is a hint of melancholy as though they are reaching their aspirations, it’s evident they are facing struggles; but it doesn’t matter because they have each other. This sense of struggle intensifies during the jazz version of the song, while they have dinner in Seb’s flat – the music stops when they both realize that there is rift. I think that is what makes the song great and worthy of it’s Oscar, because it roots in what Los Angeles gives back to Mia and Seb but at the same time takes something out of them – which is time together, because during these scenes we see that they are so busy with their lives, they don’t spend as much time as before and forget what they really wanted.
“I hate jazz” is a line that makes a turning point for the film. During “Herman’s Habit”, Seb goes into a heartfelt explanation on where jazz music comes from and why it is more than what it seems, which is something La La Land also tries to accomplish. Mia sees jazz differently, defining it as elevator music and relaxing tunes; people talk over jazz music and never notice it’s actually in motion. Seb is appalled by this, and points out her mistake.
Perhaps it’s true that no one ever notices when jazz music is played, but it’s a hidden sign of attraction for them. When Seb is playing in the restaurant, no one flinches as “Mia And Sebastian’s Theme” echoes through the room; all light disappears but a spotlight shining on Seb, and the only one listening is Mia. The lights return and everyone is staring at Seb, wondering what is this ridiculous music he’s played. While Mia is at dinner with Greg and his brother, she feels left out; her conscience too drifts from a contained barrier because she hears jazz music, the same song, playing as “people talk over it drinking alcohol”. When we meet Keith for the first time, the band is playing a jazz version of “Another Day Of Sun” – pulling both Mia and Seb from their happy lives into the aspirations they had when we were introduced to them.
Colours and lights tell a story, and La La Land is a very good example of how they do so. In simple dimming of the exterior, there is focus on a character because it gives more attention to them – they have something to share and we are encouraged to listen. We see this in Mia’s bathroom, when “Mia And Sebastian’s Theme” is first played, and ultimately during “Audition” as Mia tells the story of her aunt & a message to “fools who dream” and as Seb plays “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” during the epilogue. In a similar example, during “Start A Fire” Seb is given the spotlight and so is Keith – but we never see Keith’s face, so we can only really focus on Seb – when the lights come back on, attention is all over the place.
Colours themselves reflect how characters are feeling. Mia, in the shower after another failed audition, is surrounded by shades of pink and green; she’s emotionally flustered, wanting to express in song (hence a dimming of exterior lights, only to be interrupted by roommates), and when she does the pink and red fade away and we are left with the standout blue of her dress – mirroring her sad reflection. Her roommates are a mixture of spirited souls, hence the rooms in their flat varies from green, yellow, blue, and red (which pattern the dresses they wear in “Someone In The Crowd”). This is repeated during Mia’s next set of auditions, where the walls are red, yellow, and green (no blue, which she wore). During “Planetarium”, the silhouettes of Mia and Seb show they are in their own fantasy world as they are surrounded by the painted galaxy.
It also seems that that colour and light have a life of their own. When Mia hears “Mia And Sebastian’s Theme” for the first time, she is standing between neon red lights which outline her body; they are penetrating her body, making her want to realize that inside the restaurant there is something she must find (which happens to be Seb). This same shade of red reappears when Seb has just finished reading Mia’s play and she shows him the sign she made for his club. A similar color appears outside the theater after Mia’s play, saying that “this is over, all of this”. At first Seb’s apartment, where his sister is with him, is lit all sunlight, showing just how dull Seb’s life is at the moment. During “City of Stars” – in both the duet version and jazz version – there is a green light piercing through the curtains (something like what I saw in Vertigo) depicting that while there is now color in Seb’s life, both he and Mia are still having trouble in making their dream come true.
Something special about “A Lovely Night” was the scenery was not post-processed, they shot the sequence at a given time with as much accuracy possible so that they could capture the beautiful sunset over Los Angeles; not to mention that this was a whole continuous shot. The same sunlight is shown during Seb’s “City of Stars”, a tint of violet covering the boardwalk.
What costume designer Mary Zophres did right about La La Land was that she kept it simple, never going over the edge in showing the colors that each character wears. In “Another Day Of Sun”, each dancer is wearing dominantly one color (if not, it’s usually paired with black). This technique is narrowed in “Someone In The Crowd” when each of the girls are wearing solid primary colours (and green) – attributed to Sweet Charity; simple yet attractive to the eye. Where it goes overboard a bit is during “Epilogue” where there’s a variety of colours to be seen because the fantasy is showing what could have happened. Mia and Seb’s attires during the song are really wonderful, especially what they wear during the “Planetarium” part where they dance once more amidst the stars.
Something I’m proud I noticed when I first watched was that Mia and Seb’s clothes are always exact complements or contrasts during important scenes. In the restaurant when they bump into each other, they are wearing a strong shade of blue. In “A Lovely Night”, Seb is in simple black and white while Mia is in bright yellow; the day after, they are both in shades of white. At the Rialto, Seb dons a tan suit as Mia dresses in solid green – this is repeated during “Engagement Party”, Seb is wearing the same suit as he plays the piano and Mia wears green inside her room. A very subtle example was during “Summer Montage” where Mia is in a pink tank and Seb is in a casual, bright yellow polo, and in the next scene Mia’s in a pink dress and Seb is formally dressed with a yellow tie. While they’re on the funicular railway (with that amazing symmetrical shot a la Wes Anderson), they’re in matching light blue tops and tap dancing shoes – they are both in blue again when Seb goes to Mia’s house in Boulder City. This pattern is ultimately broken during the epilogue, where Mia now matches with her husband in black while Seb wears a brown suit.
I am not at all disheartened that La La Land lost Best Picture to Moonlight because the latter is a spectacular film. But I will never stop saying that La La Land is just as great, and deserves to be appreciated more. There is more to what you see on screen, and Chazelle & Hurwitz did a great job in sending that message. Decades of film making will thank La La Land for the tribute it has put together for them, while giving out their own special way of message through film. La La Land is wonderful, and I will keep loving it even after film has reached its time.