La La Land // Race + Jazz + Color Theory


La La Land

If you live anywhere on this Earth, you know that La La Land was a big deal this past year. It received a remarkable six OSCARs:

  • Damien Chazelle for Best Director
  • Emma Stone for Best Actress
  • Linus Sandgren for Best Cinematography
  • Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score
  • “City of Stars” (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Pasek & Paul) for Best Original Song
  • David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco for Best Production Design

And yet… it wasn’t that remarkable. After much poking, prodding, and insistence on behalf of my La La Land-obsessed friend, I sat down to watch it, and a solid two hours later, my life was unchanged. Perhaps it was just me. My brain tends to be very logical, and La La Land was just not. The film centers on Sebastian, an aspiring “classical jazz” artist, and Mia, an aspiring actress, who (surprise surprise) fall in love, but are torn apart by circumstances “out of their control.”

First of all, there was a race issue with the film.

I know a lot of people try to rationalize the fact that literally everyone with a speaking part except John Legend’s character is white. I understand that most films right now do not have racial diversity at all, but if you’re going to make a film about jazz in America, you need to have diverse characters in it. I’m from California. And if you’re from anywhere along the California coastline, you know that it’s impossible to not see interracial couples and people of different racial backgrounds (and “different racial backgrounds” includes Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and mixed-race Americans).

My problem wasn’t even that Sebastian (who is white) was a “white savior” (there are arguments for and against this) but that this film could have been about so much more had Sebastian been African American. Cultural identity, for example. Interracial romance, for another (a more timely obstacle to the characters’ romance, considering that more than 15% of couples in the U.S. are interracial, but some backwards ideas about interracial romance remain).

The film didn’t even include a nod to the African American heritage of jazz, and failed to clarify the type of jazz that Sebastian was a fan of. “Classical” or “original” jazz can refer to a number of styles, but jazz was mainly used as a plot device and ultimately not respected as the complex art form it is.

Second of all, the problems weren’t real.

The film operates on the assumption that the characters are doing everything right, but the world is being unfair to them. Mia doesn’t change or work on her acting, but is eventually recognized for her quiet genius that has gone unnoticed for hundreds of auditions. When Sebastian agrees to try a different, more modern style of jazz with a group, it is the group’s success that is preventing Seb from becoming an excellent musician of “classic jazz.”

When the characters face events that “threaten to separate them” it is their unyielding desire for a perfect world that prevents them from adjusting a little (without truly giving anything up) to be together. And the film never critiques or comments on this behavior. Everything Sebastian and Mia do is right, and the world is against them and their romance whenever something goes wrong.

That being said, the OSCARs for Cinematography and Production Design were well-deserved.


also La La Land

Apparently, the first scene, which involves dancing on a freeway on top of cars and singing, was shot in one go and the vocals were recorded live. Which is INCREDIBLE. If you’ve never tried just recording audio of something… well, try it. It’s extraordinarily frustrating and professionals typically splice segments together because in a piece as long as a scene in La La Land, mistakes will be made.

Also, my La La Land-loving friend explained this thing called color theory to me. In La La Land, it’s employed brilliantly in everything from the backgrounds of scenes (filmed in real locations around LA) to the clothing worn by Mia and Seb. Apparently, in La La Land, bright colors are used to signify high points in their dream-like relationship, with the colors evolving from primary to secondary to tertiary as their relationship becomes more complex. When Mia and Seb fall out of love, the colors become dull and muted, signifying a return to real life (and, apparently, traffic).

The film itself was well-structured, with the end mirroring the beginning and a stark contrast between what actually happens in the end and the ideal future imagined in “Epilogue.”

In the end, I didn’t love the film, but I didn’t hate it, either.

La La Land wasn’t as inventive as some fans make it seem, but it wasn’t the rehash that others whine about, either. Seb was your typical bad boy and Mia your typical innocent struggling actress, but it wasn’t your typical love story. It has plot problems and casting problems and logic problems, but the film included a slight dash of genius on the side of the production and set/costume design.


6 responses to “La La Land // Race + Jazz + Color Theory

  1. That truly might be the best review of La La Land I’ve read yet. And I agree this movie could have been so much better if it hadn’t had such a white cast. The overall whiteness of this movie was not only completely unrealistic but also bothered me.

    • Thank you, Moy! I honestly don’t understand how this film has won so many awards. Sure, it’s magical and dreamy, but what does it say when a magical, dreamy world that is portrayed as “ideal life” is filled only with white folks? What sort of image does that convey to twentysomething people of color? One thing I didn’t really put in but that I also deeply disliked was the fact that “diversity” was portrayed as black and white. While I know that this may be true for some parts of the country (such as the South), the California coast and L.A. especially has a large number of Asian and Mexican Americans who deserve to be represented in film as well.

  2. Could not agree more, my friend– it was an average movie at best (minus the cinematography which was pretty dang great), and I was lowkey bored through the whole thing until like the last seven minutes which I thought were good just because of the way they led up to saying that it’s important to believe in your choices and that life is about the journey, etc etc. But yeah otherwise was not super impressed. Very much enjoyed reading your thoughts!!

    • Thank you!! The cinematography was incredible as well as the costume design and the deep thought that went into the production, filming, and editing of the movie. If only the story had lived up to the high quality of the cinematography! I was trying to stay spoiler-free in my review, but I thought the last seven minutes were illogical, even if I liked the message behind them. It’s my belief that Seb and Mia could have been together and “had it all” if they’d just each given in a little bit instead of insisting on living their separate fantasies apart from each other. Seb could have learned to live “in Mia’s shadow” and Mia could have learned to be supportive of Seb’s choices, whatever they may be, but it was their inflexibility that eventually led them to their less-satisfying ending.

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