Perhaps the most pivotal scene in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land takes place in a restaurant, one that Mia (Emma Stone) chances upon while walking the long journey home, with no idea that Seb (Ryan Gosling) works there playing the piano. But before that, as Mia approaches the restaurant, she passes a long, colourful mural. We see Mia walk past Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, WC Fields, and James Dean. The wide shot that follows reveals the full wall, a crowd of recognisable figures all sitting on red velvet seats in a darkened theatre, staring out at the street in front of them, as well as Mia, stepping out of a perfect empty frame of red neon light.
This is the “You Are The Star” mural, which sits at the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue in LA. Fred and Ginger dance in the aisle, while Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton sit up front. A nod to the Old Hollywood legends La La Land so often pays homage to, the mural plays with the idea of spectatorship, inverting the roles of artist and audience by seating screen legends in the cinema, and the average passerby on screen.
La La Land has been described by various critics as a “love letter” to lots of things: to Hollywood, to musicals, to dreamers, to LA, even to romance itself. It is, to an extent, all these things. Its familiar story (cynical, frustrated male creative seeks wide-eyed female creative, for the mutual following of dreams) necessarily romanticises the experience of being an actor, a musician, a writer – even, especially, if it involves struggle. But La La Land is also an ode to the audience.
Mia and Seb both hope to be performers: Seb wants to run, and play at, his own jazz club; Mia wants to make it as an actress. But when we meet them, working low-paid, dead-end hospitality jobs, they are primarily audience members. We see Seb obsessively playing jazz cassettes and records on loop, Mia gushing about a childhood spent watching Notorious, Bringing Up Baby and Casablanca.
In fact, Seb and Mia fall in love as observers – their romance blossoms as they share experiences as audience members. They stroll around the Warner Bros lot together, watching films being shot. “I love it,” Mia sighs. They go to a jazz club together and bond over the music. Shifting in red velvet seats, their hands inch towards the other’s during a screening of Rebel Without a Cause. They even go to a literal observatory together (the Griffiths Observatory – yes, the same one they just watched on screen in Rebel), where their romance takes off. We even see them watch a home movie of their own potential life together in the film’s epilogue.
Theatres, music clubs and sets therefore become significant sites of communion, both culturally and personally, and fetishised by Seb and Mia. In fact, Mia leaves her uninspiring boyfriend, Greg, when she sinks into the jazz melodies underscoring their dinner at a posh restaurant. Meanwhile, Greg and his brother and sister-in-law discuss the advantages of their expensive home cinemas compared to public theatres: “You know theatres these days, they’re so dirty. And they’re either too hot or too cold. And there’s always people talking.” (After comments like these, Greg is a write-off.)
We often use films, books and music as tools to make connections with each other, even form lasting relationships. The experience of being “Someone in the Crowd”, as the film’s soundtrack describes it, doesn’t just inspire the creative careers at the heart of La La Land, but every area of life.
When Seb suggests taking Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause, he’s embarrassed – it seems too obviously like a date, and Mia isn’t single. “I can take you,” he says, before adding, “You know, for research.” “For research!” Mia repeats. “Yeah. Great. For research.” The joke, of course, is that both Seb and Mia know their date is just that, a date – but the script also plays with the idea that watching movies can be a kind of emotional research, not just for an actress preparing for a new role, but for anybody. For Seb and Mia, their “research” brings them to each other, a life-changing (if not lifelong) relationship.
We see Seb and Mia’s relationship play out as a series of performances, with Seb playing and Mia watching. There are five scenes that explore this dynamic – their first meeting at Seb’s restaurant, their run-in at a pool party where Mia requests “I Ran”, a few weeks into their romance at The Lighthouse, at a huge gig where Seb performs in his new band, The Messengers, and, finally, in Seb’s own club. Each of these scenes reveal incremental changes in Mia’s perspective on her life, her ambitions, and her desires, as she moves from awe to playful cynicism to optimism to disillusionment and, finally, to a bittersweet compromise of all the above.
Critics have raised eyebrows at the gender politics of this film on the back of these scenes – arguing that they present the male lead as the artist, the female lead as mostly observer, contributing to decades of fetishising male artists while dismissing women as primarily muses or facilitators of male art and ambition.
“Guy gets Madeline, Andrew gets greatness (and Fletcher), and Sebastian gets his club (if not Mia),” writes Morgan Leigh Davis, of La La Land and the plots of other jazz movies Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Whiplash. “And women? All they get to do is listen.”
But scenes of Seb’s performances don’t actually focus on Seb, nor do they form deep explorations of his career ambitions – they are important to us as an audience because Mia is watching. We rarely see him perform if not through her gaze, and we see her emotionally develop through her evolving reactions to his music, while the film’s most fantastical scenes are all her projections, her imaginative response to what she hears. We repeatedly see Mia writing, auditioning, and performing without Seb present – and the film’s opening and closing scenes are all shot through her eyes. For me, this is Mia’s film, the story of her ambitions realised.
Criticisms of the focus being on Seb performing also rest on the idea that making art is fundamentally more important than engaging with it, envisaging culture as a series of monologues rather than a great, messy dialogue. But watching is a key part of Mia’s artistic life. It’s as important to her as performing, and La La Land suggests that watching and listening are not passive activities. When Mia notices the jazz in the posh restaurant, for instance, listening is positioned as something that requires skill, practice and attentiveness; while going to see Rebel Without a Cause can end in a beautiful dance sequence at the Griffiths Observatory. Watching and listening are figured as active, creative, transformative acts. Here, consuming art can have as much personal and cultural value as making art: both must occur for “culture” to exist.
Mia is always open to art that is new to her – music she hasn’t yet heard and films she hasn’t yet seen. Ultimately, staying open to new kinds of watching and listening is what allows her to create genuinely original work. Her time spent watching films with her aunt inspires the audition that bags her her breakout role – and we know those also shape her final performance (the film she gets a part in has no script; the producers want to work with Mia to mould the role over three months of rehearsals and a four-month shoot in Paris).
Seb, on the other hand, is a closed book to the new. He’s never genuinely interested in The Messengers, and prefers to stay stuck in the past, listening obsessively to the same pieces of music over and over again. We first meet him rewinding cassettes in his car, and later see him dropping the needle of his record player on the same spot on the vinyl in his kitchen. His hands instinctively move to the same keys on the piano. In the end, he decides to move away from original work, instead choosing to become a facilitator of the music of others, in a club that only plays traditional, nostalgic jazz.
Seb might spend a lot of time explaining what makes art beautiful, but we can never take him seriously – his insistences on “pure” jazz, fists clenched with passion, or claims that he is a “serious musician”, are usually played for laughs. Mia’s dreams aren’t (even if she is a lot more likely to laugh at herself).
The visual landscape of La La Land creates a world hovering somewhere between fantasy and reality. Through melodic camera movements, oversaturated colour palettes, dreamlike fabrics, dance and song and references to Old Hollywood’s most iconic scenes, the ordinary becomes fantastical. Bathroom lamps become spotlights, hilltop sunsets become perfect movie sets.
And it works both ways: a cinematic tracking shot of Mia auditioning, slowly focusing on the emotion of her face, is interrupted when an assistant outside the door enters the right of the frame. Many of the film’s most dramatic moments are punctured by the mundane: phones ring, smoke alarms go off, records abruptly finish, analogue film eats itself just before the romantic climax. These both serve to disrupt and reinforce classic tropes (the interrupted kiss is as familiar as the dramatic, orchestral one), and as a result we’re never sure when we’re in La La Land and when we’re in the real world.
This is an impulse that seemingly comes from Mia. She gets herself work on a film set, to immerse herself in the fictional landscape, and we watch her twirling along the streets like she’s in a musical in her own mind. She writes in her play blurb that she’s interested in the “porous border between” dreams and reality, and we know that her play “So Long, Boulder City!” is concerned with windows, like the one from Casablanca that sits opposite her cafe, which offer a portal from one world into another. (“The whole world from your bedroom?” Seb says of her play, while the stagehand is left baffled by “that whole window thing”.)
We see lush posters of Ingrid Bergman taking up space in Mia’s apartment, then we see Mia, lying on her bed in sweatpants, shot in a similarly dramatic fashion. She literally steps into the movie at the screening of Rebel Without a Cause, the film projecting onto her face, then takes Seb to the film’s real sets.
Mia’s touchstone for inspiration is the story of her aunt jumping into the Seine in the snow. We see a picture, in Mia’s living room, of a woman in a red bathing suit frozen in a dive above a swimming pool – then see that moment recreated at different LA parties across town, never fully sure if it’s coincidence or a trick of Mia’s mind, while snow suddenly falls after her “Somewhere in the Crowd” solo.
In the film’s epilogue, places from her memory become movie sets, from the lamppost Seb danced on at the LA hilltop where they first danced, to the motorway where they were stuck in traffic at the movie’s opening. As Seb plays, she’s writing the movie of their perfect, alternate lives.
La La Land’s own audience can never fully escape the fact that they are watching a movie: though it is undoubtedly immersive, the experience of watching La La Land is too referential and self-consciously cinematic to transport its audience out of their seats into another specific place. But the dreamy, technicolour panorama of La La Land encourages audiences to revel in the moments when life feels like a movie, and to find the connections between life and art.
The “You Are the Star” mural is a strange cultural artefact. It shouts that anyone can make it in Hollywood, anyone can have their dreams come true, but if you look at the selection of celebrities sat in the theatre, it’s hardly the most broad selection of humanity. If you squint, you might see a few faces that aren’t white, but they’re few and far between. The vast majority of the stars are white, chiselled young men and women; and so the trick of the mural works better if you fit a similar description. La La Land functions in a similar way, and at the end, Emma Stone seamlessly slots into the role of successful Hollywood actress – as she’s already a rail-thin, white, traditionally beautiful, successful Hollywood actress. As Ira Madison III wrote on the film’s US release: “La La Land opens with a stunning and visually masterful dance sequence sung by an incredibly diverse group of Los Angeles denizens”, but they “are quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin”.
Life mostly happens inside our own heads. Two hours of one movie can sometimes have a bigger impact on us than two weeks of our day-to-day lives at our jobs and homes. The kind of creative internal landscapes La La Land explores through Mia are, of course, not limited to the narrow selection of people Hollywood reveres, and the film itself fails to recognise that. But the idea that borders between our imaginations and our realities are more porous than we believe, and that art and life can have a tangible relationship, is a hopeful one for anyone who has felt that their life has been changed by an album, an old movie, a painting, or a TV show. It’s an optimistic way of viewing the world – one that is as open to the observer as the performer.
Now listen to a discussion of La La Land on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY: