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La La Land | Sample Film Case Study

La La Land | Sample Film Case Study

These tasks require you study all films with particular reference to responding to questions in the key areas:

Film Language
Film Meaning
Film Context

And with specific reference to ideas of:

  • Spectatorship
  • Ideology

Section B: American Film since 2005 (two-film study)

Answer on one film from Group 1 and one film from Group 2.

Group 1: Mainstream Film

  • No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)
  • Inception (Nolan, 2010)
  • Selma (Duvernay, 2013)
  • Carol (Haynes, 2015)
  • La La Land (Chazelle, 2016)

Group 2: Contemporary Independent Film

  • Winter’s Bone (Granik, 2010)
  • Frances Ha! (Baumbach, 2012)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, 2012)
  • Boyhood (Linklater, 2015)
  • Captain Fantastic (Ross, 2015)


Context of Production

Damien Chazelle had initially conceived of the idea of making a musical that was ‘grounded in real life where things don’t exactly work out’ (Anderson, 2016) while still a student at Harvard University. He and his roommate Justin Hurwitz (who would eventually become the musical composer for La La Land) tested out their ideas in their low budget senior thesis film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, shot on 16mm b/w film stock and featuring a non-professional cast. Combining a gritty French New Wave influenced documentary style with the conventions of a Hollywood musical, the film premiered at the 2009 Tribecca Film Festival and went on to gain significant critical attention when Variance Films theatrically released it later that year.

Chazelle wrote the script for La La Land in 2010, but it would be several years before he could find a studio willing to take a gamble on a jazz musical in the vein of Singing in the Rain (Donen and Kelly, 1952) as it was a genre considered practically extinct. The Oscar winning Chicago (2002) is an obvious exception, but that film was based on an already famous Broadway and West End musical. Chazelle, in making a musical with a completely original story and score, was proposing a much riskier endeavor. It was only after the success of Chazelle’s second film, Whiplash (2014), an intense drama set at a music school which was made for $3.3 million but went on to gross $49 million worldwide, that studios began to take an interest in making La La Land. Impressed by the success of Whiplash, Summit Entertainment, a production and distribution company owned by Lionsgate, agreed to finance the film. Patrick Wachsberger, the head of Lionsgate, even encouraged Chazelle to increase his proposed budget to $30 million as he felt that a high quality musical could not be made on the cheap (Roxborough, 2016).

With financing secured, Chazelle and his producers, Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, commenced putting all the other necessary pieces in place for production to begin, which included casting Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the two principal leads and choosing Mandy Moore as the film’s choreographer. Principal photography on the film officially began in Los Angeles on August 10, 2015. Overall more than 60 locations in and around LA were used, including the Angels Flight Trolley, the Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto Theatre and the Warner Bros. studio lot. Shooting took 40 days to complete and finished in mid-September 2015.

La La Land had its world premiere as the Venice Film Festival’s opening night film on August 31, 2016, and after a rapturous reception went on to screen at several major autumn festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival. On December 9, Lionsgate opened the film in five locations in the United States and steadily expanded it to more than 700 screens by end of the month. The film expanded to 1,515 cinemas on January 6, the same weekend it won seven Golden Globe Awards, including Best Comedy or Musical and Best Director for Damien Chazelle. More awards were on the horizon, as the film earned fourteen Oscar nominations (tying records for most nominations by a single film with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) winning six, including Best Director for Chazelle and Best Actress for Emma Stone. By the time of the Oscar nominations, the film had expanded to over 3,000 screens and would eventually gross $151 million at the U.S. box office. Its combined worldwide gross was $446.1 million making it one of the top twenty most profitable releases of 2016.

Social/Political Context

Musicals are often associated with escapism. Classics such as Singing in the Rain (1952) or The Sound of Music (1965), while being very different types of musicals in style and content, are both essentially family-oriented escapist texts that hardly reflect the societal fears and anxieties of the time period in which they were produced. In fact, one might argue that the musical’s tendency towards nostalgia, Grease, 1978, is another clear example of the genre’s tendency to look back to supposedly simpler, more innocent times) and fantasy is the principal reason for its recurrent popularity in American film history. In other words, when society is troubled, we sometimes look to the cinema for an escape and a sense of reassurance, and no genre offers that as powerfully as the musical.

America’s seeming need for easy answers mixed with a longing for the perceived glories of the past reached new heights with the election of Donald Trump as President in November 2016, whose popular campaign slogan was ‘Make America Great Again’. A poll conducted just prior to Trump’s election cited that 51% of Americans felt life was better in the 1950s, and, more tellingly, 72% of Trump voters felt this way (Clark, 2016). Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that this particular film, which expresses a nostalgic fascination with great art forms of the past like jazz and the Golden Age Hollywood film, resonated so powerfully with audiences eager for a return to the ‘good old days’.

However, the 1950s was not such a golden age for all Americans. If you were a woman or African American, for instance, then a return to the values of the past might be the last thing you would want. The film received a fair share of backlash from cultural commentators who felt the film’s simplistic nostalgia glossed over America’s history of endemic racism, an oversight particularly unfortunate in a film that celebrated jazz, the development of which African Americans played a significant role. The film was also attacked for the way it specifically ignored the turbulent racial history of Los Angeles (i.e. the Rodney King riots and the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s in which black jazz fans were targeted for attack by large gangs of white people). Some were upset that even though it takes place in one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in America, the film has an almost ‘unbearably white’ vision of not only the past but of the present as well (Nelson, 2017). Writer and former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2017) found it highly problematic that Keith, the one significant character of colour in the film (played by real life musician John Legend), is depicted as the jazz sell out, while Ryan Gosling’s Seb is shown to be something a ‘white saviour’ for the dying art form.



The film begins with a traffic jam on an LA freeway. After a jubilant opening number (‘Another Day of Sun’), where the passengers of all the vehicles get out and sing about pursuing their artistic dreams, we meet Mia going over lines for an audition in her car. Her lack of concentration on the road triggers a barrage of angry horn beeping from Seb, the driver of an ‘82 Buick directly behind her. He swerves into the other lane, stops next to her, and shakes his head dismissively, provoking Mia to give him the finger.

Mia’s audition is a humiliating disappointment, and she goes home to housemates who encourage her to join them at a party (‘Someone in the Crowd’). At the party she feels isolated and out of place. To make matters worse, her car is towed and she has no choice but to head home on foot. Along the way, the sounds of an impassioned pianist stop her in her tracks in front of Lipton’s restaurant. She enters the restaurant and discovers Seb at the piano.

The honking of the horn signals a flashback to the freeway again, and this time we see the day’s events from Seb’s perspective. We see Seb make his way to a hamburger stand across the street from The Van Beek, a once famous jazz club now turned into a samba-tapas bar, which Seb dreams of buying and restoring to its former glory. After arriving home to find his sister waiting for him in order to nag him about his directionless life, Seb heads to Lipton’s, where he is the resident piano man. Though his boss strictly forbids him to deviate from the set list of Christmas jingles, Seb drifts off course and plays his own jazz music (‘Mia & Sebastian’s Theme’). This is when Mia comes in and watches mesmerized. The boss is far from mesmerized and summarily fires Seb. Mia goes over to compliment Seb, and he brusquely pushes past her without a second look.

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