One of the most iconic shots in La La Land (and there are plenty of them) comes early on during Mia’s melancholy walk home. A walk of shame. Her car’s been towed, she’s living in the city of her dreams – a city that shuns her – and finds herself doubting whether she’s good enough. It’s an all-too-familiar road, one she embarks on after each failed audition. On this particular stroll, she finds music that suits her mood and follows the bread crumbs of the melody to find Sebastian.
Moments before that, Mia passes the “You Are the Star” mural, a mural featuring the on-screen legends of Old Hollywood. The likes of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor; a veritable who’s who of the last century of cinema all seated before us. A notable play on the roles of spectatorship, where the roles of artist and audience are inverted, making the average passerby the object of their gaze and thus, their cinema. It’s enough to make you think that anyone in LA can make it as an actor.
Perhaps it’s an even easier assumption to make when virtually everywhere in LA is a snapshot of a movie, so much so that you are often made to feel like you are the star of your own feature. Los Angeles has been the setting of so many films and continues to serve as the backdrop of movies that even the most casual filmgoer has a cursory knowledge of the city’s landmarks and touchstones. A stroll through the town is to engage with a century’s worth of cinematic history.
For Mia, this sur-reality is her reality except it’s only temporary. Her first scene, for example, just seconds after the film’s breathtaking opening number, we briefly eavesdrop on what sounds like a phone call when she abruptly stops and refers back to the script. We discover she’s an actress, and, with her current stall on the freeway emblematic of her journey so far, we know she’s a struggling one.
Working as a barista at the Warner Bros. backlot, she cannot help but fantasize of the movie-star career that’s simultaneously within reach and out of her grasp. Wandering through the many film shoots happening all at once, we see the gargantuan lighting equipment, the camera dollies, and the crew buzzing around like ants, the exterior sets scattered throughout like microcosms of reality. This peek behind the scenes demystifies the whole filmmaking process, but it is immediately reconstructed through Mia’s hopeful lens.
The café itself is situated on “French Street.” Across is the window featured in Casablanca; around the corner a makeshift saloon, followed by an exotic courtyard. There’s not a single definite place to find yourself in, the entirety of the backlot simultaneously ending and beginning again. In Mia’s own room, movie posters are strung about with a starry-eyed Ingrid Bergman as a key focal point. Mia is stuck in that portal, dreaming about movies and wishing she were in them.
La La Land consistently toes the line between fantasy and reality, the two often colliding in the same space. When the “Someone in the Crowd” number slows down, Mia wanders through the party while snow suddenly begins to fall. Whether this is happening in her own mind or a coincidence, it’s left unclear, though the cues are there to suggest either (snow recalls a vivid memory of an aunt in Paris, and the sequence itself is punctuated by someone jumping into the pool).
We may never forget that we are watching a film, but Mia rarely gets to feel like she’s ever in one. At an audition, she’s nearing an emotional beat in the very scene she was rehearsing on the freeway. For a tiny moment we are lost in the subjectivity of that scene, but just before the emotion is made real, Mia is suddenly interrupted by an assistant, thereby pulling her back to her reality as a struggling actress.
The only time Mia gets the chance to express herself is during the film’s more intimate moments. When she sings to herself in the bathroom or when she’s twirling down the street; only in her lonesome is she allowed to feel like she’s the star of her own musical, the lights shining down on her something only she notices or solely felt by us. The film sweeps us into these brief moments of fantasy that are so often punctured by the harshness of reality.
At another brutal audition, Mia is dismissed before she can even finish her line. We understand Mia’s frustration. It’s not enough to have people in the room scrolling on their phones and thinking about lunch. Because what’s the point of art when no one’s there and truly there to engage with it? This existential dilemma is voiced by Sebastain’s former accomplice Keith: “How are you gonna save jazz if no one’s listening?” Mia and Sebastian’s stories take on a sadder hue when you see them as two souls seeking an audience to their craft.
There’s nothing wrong with fantasizing of an audience. It’s the very nature of performing, to be seen, to be heard. Strolling into the restaurant, Mia is lulled by Sebastian’s music, one that doesn’t need to be seen yet she’s transfixed all the same. In their ensuing romance, they provide each other the audience that they so desperately crave, doing so out of a genuine interest in the other’s passion. In truly cinematic fashion, they lose themselves in each other.
Sebastian is often shown performing, but the film never eclipses Mia’s role. In fact, we only see Sebastian perform because Mia is in attendance, and the film reminds us of the role of the observer as being an active experience as opposed to a passive one. When Sebastian plays, Mia is visibly joyed, awed, in love, the same way Sebastian is at a screening of Rebel Without A Cause, him seeing Mia on stage the way she wants to be seen. When the film reel falls apart, Mia and Sebastian retreat to the actual Griffith Observatory where their romance literally takes off, the movie-going experience figured as a transporting experience as much as it is a transformative one.
Watching is a key part in Mia’s life. She understands that it requires skill, knowledge, or at the very least, attentiveness. The film zeroes in on Mia and Sebastian’s performances through its use of spotlight – a motif that works both ways. The nature of viewing is equally important as the nature of performing. Through Mia and Sebastian, we see the beauty in allowing one’s passion to shine through, but more importantly, we understand the significance of having an audience even if it’s just one person.
That notion, in the end, becomes Mia’s ultimate salvation. Upon bowing before the few who attended her play, Mia sees herself as a failure. But there was one key person in attendance – a casting director who extends her an audition. Understandably, Mia is hesitant, but the difference this time is that there’s someone who is genuinely interested in her, and Mia is all the more liberated by being able to express herself and not some cliched role. “So Long, Boulder City” can be perceived as a failure, but the play allowed Mia to both lose and express herself, which she is encouraged to do. Mia’s heartbreak symbolizes the narrative crux that she had to risk it all before she could attain her dream.
The “You Are the Star” mural is misleading for a multitude of reasons. It posits that anyone can make it, but if you look closely at those who did, you’ll see it’s a very selective group of people. The limited number of seats affirms that not everyone can. But anyone can engage with art. The stars seated places a keen emphasis on the role of the viewer. Without an audience, a movie serves no purpose playing to an empty theater; it is the viewer who makes the cinematic-viewing experience possible. Somebody is out there watching and it’s that hope that drives creative endeavors. La La Land is a nod to that audience, to that someone in the crowd who can make all the difference between being noticed, and being seen.