La La Land: Cinematography and Sound



La La Land, released in 2016, quickly became a cult favourite soon after its debut, grossing $446 million worldwide, against a budget of just $30 million1. It set modern records2, winning seven Golden Globes, something which you may say is evident from its exquisite and engaging cinematography, creating an organic ambiance throughout. La La Land is a film that reminds audiences of the Hollywood classics. Throughout the film, we are submerged in technicolour and upbeat musical numbers that remind us all of the musical genre origins. The stage. Perhaps the piece most compared to La La Land is the 1952 American musical classic: Singin’ in the Rain. Business Insider UK (2017)3 suggests that ‘The movie’s monochromatic color schemes to large-scale public dance scenes’ help to push the idea that La La Land is ‘heavily influenced by its classic progenitor’. Cinematographer Sandgren is quoted as saying in Creative Planet Network (2016)4 ‘Damien Chazelle, Director really wanted to shoot on film … to capture as much rich colour from the sets as possible … we both felt we had more opportunity to do so with film stock than with digital tools… I felt it would be more appropriate to shoot it in 2.55 CinemaScope like they did with A Star is Born, for example, and films like that back in the 1950s, before the standard became 2.40: 1, so that’s how the 2.55 aspect ratio came up. It was really an homage to old Hollywood.’ The colour schemes, familiar aspects of the musical genre and the choice of film stock, all pull together to pay full homage to the 1950s musicals that helped inspire this award-winning film.

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Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is awash with saturated colors that utilize the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) in almost every scene- perhaps most recognizably in the one-shot opening number ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and the following track ‘Someone In The Crowd’- though these are not the only colours that play a huge part in this narrative. Colours such as red, gold and green have many meanings within the film. In the book, ‘Image’ Bergman (1994)5 describes film as being thought in straightforward terms of ‘black and white’, yet red represents for me the interior of the soul’. The colour red inside La La Land could symbolize the masterful artistic passion both leading characters has. Mia Emma Stone is an aspiring actress, throughout the film red has surrounded her, some key moments, however, are during ‘Somewhere In The Crowd’ when Mia enters a bathroom lit primarily with red, singing about finding a place where she belongs. During an audition scene Mia is shown wearing a red jacket which, after the audition is unsuccessful, audiences see Mia pulling off her jacket, perhaps symbolizing her beginning to give up, this is the pinnacle of red symbolization within the film.

In La La Land, red is utilized as an indication of reality; an approach to either wake characters up to the fact of the matter they’re living, or dangle the guarantee of something more noteworthy above them.

The utilisation of gold in La La Land could symbolise money, in a negative context. When Sebastian Ryan Gosling initially interacts with Keith John Legend, Keith is wearing a golden turtleneck and shown to be the ‘villain’ within this text. Following this, in every interaction between the two, the mise-en-scene is littered with gold, regardless of whether its outfit, set or lighting. In one key scene, when Sebastian acknowledges he is missing an essential time in Mia’s life, we see Sebastian amid a photoshoot in which the mise-en-scene is totally gold. The camera pans down to indicate him playing a red piano, in this scene the gold and red are Binary Opposites (Strauss)6 in significance.


‘Color affects the viewer in the same way that music or dance does: it reaches people at a gut emotional level.’ (Brown, 2012)7. The fundamental scene I have chosen to discuss in this essay is referred to best as ‘The Dinner Scene’. In this part of the film, the two leading characters are at different places in trying to meet their aspirations. Sebastian is performing music he doesn’t enjoy and Mia is continuing to try pursue acting- this scene takes places after Sebastian has been away on tour with Keith and the band. The scene begins when Mia enters her apartment, jazz music plays and we see a wide shot of the dining room, the back wall is suffocating in green light, perhaps suggesting the money surrounding Sebastian and his forfeit of joy for a steady income once more. Green can also symbolize apprehension, foreshadowing the events to follow within this scene. While the two eat dinner, gold light reflects off their skin, we see a quick extreme close up shot of a vinyl record playing and switched between over the shoulder shots of the pair discussing Sebastian’s current employment state. This is perhaps, the most natural scene in the film. Amongst all the vivid technicolour, upbeat dance numbers and perusing dreams we have these two struggling artists who, in this moment, actress Emma Stone (2017) describes as ‘what these characters are going through … feels very realistic and very human. … How it ultimately unfolds, I think is something that everyone can relate to’2. As the scene unfolds, Mia asks Sebastian if staying in this band is for “the long hall”. At this moment, the once conversational over the shoulder shots become more intense, audiences see a shift in the atmosphere with closer, more personal, head and shoulder shots of the pair.


Sound throughout the film is a distinctive element amongst the essential components. This scene, in particular, uses sound to inform audiences of the emotions within each character. When Mia enters her apartment, we hear the iconic jazz music, that is a prominent feature throughout the film, and see a record playing. However, after Mia mentions “the long hall”, as described before, the scene becomes more intense. The dialogue is completely natural, mimicking real-life conversation, with characters at times completely speaking over each other’s lines, keeping a natural rhythm or even mispronouncing certain words. The two leads begin to argue more intensely and after Sebastian states that Mia is “an actress” and doesn’t know “what she’s talking about!”, the music stops, the dialogue stops, and all audiences can hear is the quiet crackle of the vinyl coming to an end. The anticipation of waiting for one of them to speak ends when Sebastian says “Maybe you just liked me when I was on my ass because it made you feel better about yourself.”, actors use this element of language to shape a scene without actually saying what they mean, Sebastian knows this isn’t the truth but wants to hurt Mia emotionally as he feels she has done to him, to which Mia replies “Are you kidding?”. Musician Dodie Clark (2017)8 accentuates the utilization of repetition and picking up on each other’s mannerisms within this scene. Clark mentions the reference to Sebastian’s meeting with Keith when he utters “Are you kidding?” which is then repeated by Mia as described above. Also, the use of “I love Jazz now!” which is repeated by Sebastian in a later scene almost as a joke to make light of the argument that took place. During the period of silence between the two, audiences see a shot similar to the one during the opening of this scene: a close up of the vinyl, now turning at the end of the album. ‘Perhaps the most interesting use of sound in a movie is the very absence of it: silence…arrest the audience’s attention to highlight some action or change in story direction’9, the silence is broken by a high pitched smoke alarm noise, possibly symbolizing the end of this argument and their relationship. When Sebastian stands, the use of shaky cam comes into play, for the first and only time in this film. This disrupts the once dream-like essence of the film. Sound designer Ai-Ling Lee (2017)10 describes the use of sound in this as: ‘we have all these musical fantasy moments, sometimes Director, Damien Chazelle wants it to go into such a heightened fantasy moment that it becomes almost soundless.’- this dinner scene juxtaposes this recurring fantasy theme with the use of real sounds: the vinyl crackle, moving chairs, and the smoke alarm.


‘Musical soundtracks can influence the interpretation, emotional impact, and remembering of film information’ (Boltz, 2004)11. The La La Land soundtrack became the bestselling soundtrack of April 2017 with over 25,00012 sales at that time. Composer Justin Hurwitz took home two Oscars for ‘Best Original Score’ and ‘Best Original Song’13 as well as the Golden Globe Awards for ‘Best Original Score’ and ‘Best Original Song’13. This iconic soundtrack also found Hurwitz winning the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music13. A strong element of La La Land’s iconic, memorable soundtrack that arguably inspires audiences, is its use of motifs. A motif (or cell) is a short melodic piece that is reoccurring throughout a piece- this motif can be exactly the same or have some variation to the key, tempo, timbre, etc. Within La La Land we see scenes full of romance and often along with that hear a short motif from ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’, and others where characters begin to give up and we hear a slower version of this motif. The film itself is very jazz-heavy, which is, in some ways, what the film is most criticized for: ‘Many jazz musicians and aficionados have criticized La La Land for its heavy-handed and cliche-ridden portrayal of jazz music, particularly in the score composed by Justin Hurwitz’ (Fukushima, 2017) 14. But the element of jazz isn’t just in the music, it is one of the main factors in the narrative. Sebastian is often talking about how he wants to “save jazz”, and almost laughs at the approach jazz musician, Keith, takes to modernise Jazz, ‘Today’s artists have realized that letting go of these conservative notions is best way to “save jazz”‘ (Chambers, 2017)15. Jazz is a genre that is often associated with the older generation, but La La Land is a film with a primary audience of teens and young adults- alternatively, it could be argued that La La Land has made not only jazz more popular amongst younger audiences, but also similar genres such as swing, because of this.


In conclusion, the use of cinematography and sound within La La Land is iconic and are two key elements of what makes the film such a cult favourite. From the unusual, often colourful, lighting, monochromatic and triadic colour palettes and upbeat musical numbers that remind us all of the classics: La La Land is, and probably always will be, a film that inspires audiences to pursue their dreams all the while reminiscing the old Hollywood-vibe. Intense scenes like ‘The Dinner Scene’ tell a story without anything other than natural dialogue that hooks audiences, audiences are able to completely immerse themselves into the film, getting hooked on the characters, their passions and their fight for success. Which is understandable, because as Mia says, ‘people love what other people are passionate about’16.