A Communication Studies Perspective on “La La Land”

One of the 2016’s most critically acclaimed films that earned countless awards, despite the miscommunication of Best Picture at the Oscars, entertained audiences as it made them sing, awe, cry, applaud, and even made them watch it again. This film is Director and Writer Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a throwback film to classic Hollywood set in modern day. It is understandable that a number of audience members may have seen the film as Oscar bate due to how it showed off Hollywood and the entertainment industry in a positive light, however, I believe that there is more to it than that along with the fact that it doesn’t exactly portray Hollywood positively. With the film having been released this week on Blue-Ray and DVD, this article is dedicated to the in-depth look at the movie musical that swept audiences off their feet. For those that never had the opportunity to see La La Land, this article contains spoilers, so viewers discretion is advised.

When I saw the film in December of 2016, I took my girlfriend Emilie who warned me in advance that I had to prepare myself for what was to come. (I soon found out that she was able to screen the film a year in advance when it was still in production). Having a background in musical theater and choir while also having a huge love and passion for film and an aspiration to become a Producer and Screenwriter (which I still have by the way), I definitely wanted to see this film. Throughout the two hour runtime, I laughed, I awed, I sang, and I contemplated as I analyzed and put pieces together. When the big reveal came about Mia and Sebastian, I did not react as others had in the theater since I actually saw it coming. What I was not expecting was the “what could have been” montage of Mia and Sebastian if life had gone differently based on their decision making.
As the credits rolled and as audience members left their seats, I remained in mine contemplating the entire film as my Emilie sat beside me patiently waiting for a response. I sat there for a near five to ten minutes and then…then that’s when the tears began flowing. I walked out of the theater with her and then began explaining just how beautiful and meaningful the film meant to me and how much I related to it as a struggling artist. It was not just the story though that was a large factor, but it was the writing that sold me. Having a degree in Communication Studies that focused primarily on interpersonal communication, symbolism, verbal and nonverbal, there was so much going through my head during the film. I have wanted to write about these great many things for some time.

It is Not a Glorification of Hollywood, it is a Reality for Struggling Artists

One of the many arguments and critiques I’ve heard and read from friends, colleagues, and critics was the fact that it glamorized Hollywood to be this beautiful place where everyone has a chance at being somebody if given the opportunity to audition or meet that someone in the crowd (no pun intended). For me, it was almost anything but that.
Let’s start with the opening scene/musical number. What is the first thing the audience sees before the beat drops? L.A. traffic. For anyone that lives or commutes to Los Angeles, Hollywood, or Burbank can testify the accuracy of this. The honking, the yelling, the flipping off of slow drivers, the enduring constant construction that has been going for years and is never done, all of the above. When I would watch films that took place in Hollywood, the traffic was super light and the city was clean, flaws that I pointed out every time.
Though I am not an actor or singer, I do know what it is like to have auditioned or interviewed over and over again only to be told you weren’t good enough or that it was a 50/50 choice and that they went with the other candidate. Today, I still face that as a freelance Photographer, Production Assistant, Grip, and more. The rejection in the roles for Mia is definitely a realistic portrayal as to how impersonal studios are and how rigorous auditions can be. According to Connect, it took actor Mark Ruffalo then years to land a significant role in Hollywood.
“It’s been mythicized now, but it started with 600 auditions without success,” He said in an interview, “Most smart people would have quit when it takes that long.”
Wherever one is in the artistic world, it is countless auditions, small last minute gigs, constant connection building, and unpaid projects for the sake of resume building and job experience. One thing that all have had to learn, myself included, is to never take rejection personally. Business is business and if you don’t have what it takes and are not putting your best foot forward, someone else will and the studio will take them over you. This is why I absolutely love the opening number “Another Day of Sun.”
“I hear them every day/the rhythms in the canyons that’ll never fade away/ the ballads and the ballrooms left by those who came before/they say you got to want it more/And even when the answers now or when my money’s running low/the disc and mic and neon glow are all I need
Having a job at Disneyland, this reminds me a lot of Walt Disney’s early years when coming to Buena Vista Street with nothing but a suitcase, a couple of bucks, and the clothes on his back. Everyone starts somewhere and it can take years for them to really become someone, let alone someone that people will remember for a lifetime.

The Emphasis of La La in the Title

My first thought about the title was just how creative it was when I first saw the trailer. I honestly thought it stood for Los Angeles since that is where the film takes place next to Hollywood and Burbank. It was not until after the movie that my girlfriend Emilie and I discussed the real meaning of the title applied to the relationship between Mia and Sebastian throughout. Again, due to my degree in Communication Studies, I was able to pick up on a number of factors and moments between the two.
The relationship between them is no doubt a beautiful one in the beginning. It is full of fun and adventure as the two continue to grow in their talents and dreams. As you notice through the good part of their relationship, they float and dance in the clouds at the Griffith Observatory. It is beautiful but it is also outside of reality as they are in a paradise, or in this case, la la land. Sooner or later, one must come back down to reality and prepare for life’s problems and difficulties. Though the bills were being paid, Mia and Sebastian began to physically separate as Sebastian began going on tour with the band.
A significant and powerful moment of this is Mia being close to the front of the stage watching Sebastian play and it isn’t until he moves from the keyboard to the synthesizer that she begins backing away as the crowd shoves forward. The sound that she was familiar with and identified with Sebastian has completely changed. The la la land moments begin fading out and eventually vanis during their argument at the dinner table, which for me personally, is a very well written scene, which brings us to the next topic.

The Dream vs. Reality

Lin-Manuel Miranda put it best himself in the 2008 hit Broadway Musical In the Heights where he says, “Everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream.” That is primarily what this is movie all about. Mia and Sebastian have these temporary jobs that help them get through the day while inside, they long and strive for the dreams that they want. Their dreams are more than being successful in the entertainment industry financially or fame wise, but wanting to do what they are most passionate about, to make something of themselves, and to do what other see as impossible or too risky.
Down the line, sometimes, pursuing the dream takes people down a different path, a path they may not necessarily enjoy. Rather than leaving, they stick with it and sometimes stay with it for the rest of their lives. I am specifically talking about Sebastian’s choice to join the band and go on tour. It is a great opportunity, but over time, he becomes so comfortable with it to the point where his dream to open up a Jazz Club is not just pushed back but nearly forgotten. He talks a big game about not caring what people’s opinions are or not being liked by everyone, yet reveals something completely different when he argues with Mia at the dinner table.
Mia: People will want to go to your club because you’re passionate about it and people love about what people are passionate about. You remind people of what they forgot.
Sebastian: Not in my experience. Whatever, alright? It is time to grow up. I have a steady job, I know what I am doing…This is the dream. Guys like me work their whole lives to be in something that is successful, that people like. I’m finally in something that people enjoy.
Mia: Since when do you care about being liked?
From then on, it is unnecessary call-outs to each other that damage the relationship significantly. Of all my favorite scenes in the film, this one is one of my top favorites because of how raw and real it is for many artists who have argued with their parents, friends, and significant others. Personally speaking, I have had these type of arguments with my parents for the past few months where I want to pursue what I’m passionate about only to get the response about how having a steady job is more important than the dream. It is understandable that one must have a lower job or a temporary job in order to make ends meet but that does not mean the dream is dead or that we should become comfortable where we are for the sake of fearing the future or for the sake of what our family and friends will think about us prior to our success.

Could it Have Really Worked Out in the End?

One can only imagine if Mia and Sebastian could really have had their careers while still being together. What really had me thinking during the last ten to twenty minutes of the movie when it was revealed that they had both moved on, was my relationship with Emilie and my dreams. Again, going back to my degree, a key component in a relationship such as this is making time for the other and also communication, intimacy, honesty, and vulnerability. As previously discussed, Mia and Sebastian do not handle conflict well when the time comes.
While no one is perfect in a relationship, what this did communicate to me was that they probably did not keep each other in check. What I mean by that is that they most likely had only small conversations about their future together and the outlook of their lives. As each year passes let alone each season, one must recognize the signs in relationships–good or bad–and bring those into the light. While pursuing dreams are important, we never see the two of them have an in-depth talk about their futures during the relationship. We only see it when they get to know each other after meeting, during their argument later in their relationship, and after Mia’s audition. But during the relationship itself, nothing is significantly shown. I believe that this is why the relationship did not work out. The communication was great until it came to arguments. It was very harsh and critical as each interrupted the other and as Sebastian refused to fall on his sword and take responsibility for the difficulty of the relationship.

There are countless themes and moments that people can pick up after watching La La Land, from its nods to classic Hollywood to its colorfulness in the costume designs and overall sets and locations. Overall, La La Land communicates the constant struggles of a starving artist and the cost and sacrifice in pursuing dreams for those entering into the performing arts. It also paints an in-depth picture on the importance of communication in relationships as it demonstrates the lack of it between Mia and Sebastian during hard times.

What did you think of La La Land? Think there was anything that I missed for glossed over? Let me know in the comments below! La La Land released on DVD and Blue-Ray April 25th, 2017.

Trey Soto

Trey Soto holds a B.A. in Communication Studies from Biola University, emphasis in Interpersonal/Rhetorical Theory. He has been a Film Critic/Analysis for over a year at Geeks Under Grace and other websites such as Temple of Geek. In his spare time, he enjoys comic book literature, screenwriting, production assistant freelancing, photography, cosplay, and hosting his own film podcast T.V. Trey on Podbean and iTunes.

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