Essays · Movies

Never Shined So Brightly: The Use of Color in ‘La La Land’

An exploration of what director Damien Chazelle is saying with the primary colors of his quintessential Hollywood love story.
La La Land
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2017

Call me a sucker, but I didn’t know where La La Land was going to land. The story is a quintessential one about making it as an artist in Los Angeles, and the things we sacrifice along the way. Mia, a struggling actress, collides with Sebastian, a struggling musician. It’s heartfelt and earnest, specific and sweeping, but it’s never clear cut – even as it clearly telegraphs the inner lives of its artists.

See, details matter in La La Land. The fact that Mia changes out of heels to matching tap shoes when Sebastian and her have their twilight dance is important; we won’t see her in heels again until she’s left Sebastian. That Sebastian drives a classic, brown Riviera distinguishes him from Mia’s sensible, modern Prius.

Likewise, the color pallette of a scene matters. Director and writer Damien Chazelle’s bright, detergent-commercial colors are (like many mechanics of the movie) an homage to big Hollywood musicals of old. But the primary color choices he makes also conveys much more about the pair of artists, and the lives they choose to lead.

Blue is often the tinge of the (successful) Hollywood that is always surrounding Mia and Sebastian. Everything from Ingrid Bergman to murals of classic film stars to The Van Beek club are tinted with it. These are the people who made it, who steered their career in some way Sebastian and Mia have not when we first meet them.

In the world of La La Land blue represents creativity and control. It’s the color of the suit Sebastian pulls out when he’s playing gigs; the mood lighting in the Lighthouse Cafe when Sebastian first meets Mia after work; and of course, it’s the color of Mia’s dress when she goes to the ill-fated party with her roommates.

That party scene foreshadows Mia’s creative potential early on. Unlike her partner, Mia isn’t quite distinctive right off the bat; up until then the movie has painted her as just another hopeful starlet. And while Sebastian gets a few scenes that demonstrate his skills as a pianist, Mia’s talent is a bit more obscure. Some of that is just part of the nature of a musical; it’s a lot easier to showcase someone’s instrumental expertise than it is someone’s acting talent within a film.

But it also leaves a bit of wonder for that final audition scene, when Mia has everything on the line. It’s the fullest we hear Emma Stone’s singing voice get, and it’s (eventually) clear that the casting directors saw what she believed she had all along.

By the end of the film the world sees Mia as the sort of talent she always dreamt she could be, but it’s that first party scene where she first distinguishes herself in a vivid blue dress. Unlike her roommates, who (though vivid in their own right) are color-blocked similarly to other folks at the party, Mia’s dress stands out from the crowd.

When you see yellow in La La Land it normally means there’s change ahead. Despite being one of the first colors we see in the technicolor dance sequence that opens the film, it’s not a color we see very often in the first part of the movie – why would it be? We’re only being shown Sebastian and Mia’s lives to-date; the establishing of the status quo. And so yellow appears mostly in spurts.

Until its most prominent entrance, Mia’s dress at the third meet-cute. This is the pool party where she and Sebastian finally talk, flirt, and dance. By the end of the night, as Sebastian returns to the car his feelings have certainly evolved.

Perhaps the person we see the color most associated with is Keith. His introduction comes halfway through the movie as someone who could change things for Sebastian who has been struggling to find the kind of jazz work he wants to do, and he immediately stands out from the palette we’ve seen so far. His turtleneck is a deep mustard color which (although bold like the colors throughout La La Land) hasn’t been seen much up to now.

Keith ultimately represents a reordering to Seb’s life in two major ways: A steady gig playing piano, and his jazz-fusion band, a far cry from Sebastian’s “pure” jazz philosophy.

The movie uses the color palette to draw a schism between Keith and Sebastian’s styles from their very first rehearsal scene. Sebastian shows up, decked in his trusty blue suit, ready to work. As the pop-inclinations of Keith’s combo become clear, the neutral and blue tones of the room are suddenly overwhelmed by the red of Keith’s guitar and the yellow of the other instrument cases.

We learn that Sebastian has a bad history with Keith, after being passed over for a band back in the day. Keith shares at the end of the jam session that, while Sebastian was the superior key player, his inability to compromise his control of his art and change himself for an ensemble was what moved the dial in the other direction. But the color-shift has already choreographed that shift for the audience.

Likewise, Sebastian starts The Messengers gig bathed in solo and bathed in blue light. But once the synth and the rest of the combo kicks in, the stage (and Mia’s face in the audience) are swathed in bright, warm yellows.

Those sort of yellow lights don’t appear all that frequently. The next time we see them is when Sebastian drives to Boulder City to bring Mia back for the big climactic audition.

The elusive truth of the movie’s palette. In La La Land, red is used as a manifestation of reality; a way to either wake characters up to the truth they’re living, or dangle the promise of something greater above them.

When we first see Mia at her coffeeshop job everyone stops to watch a famous actress who Mia immediately recognizes and envies, wearing a bright red dress. And when Sebastian is forced to find a way to make ends meet at the pool party, he and his keytar are in fire engine-red. Similarly it’s the color of the stool when he signs his contract with Keith, a compromise of his artistic sensibilities. Red neon lights blaze across LA, and are the color of the neon bars that frame Mia as she stops after hearing Sebastian play for the first time. As the print of Rebel Without a Cause melts away and interrupts what would be their first kiss, the striking red of the Rialto’s seats backdrops their sheepishness.

Perhaps the most interesting way Chazelle builds up reality’s power through red is by mixing it with other colors. Our main characters find themselves in rooms and streets bathed in warring blue and red lights, like when when Mia and Sebastian discuss her show’s first draft and his club’s name. Though the creativity and authenticity of red and blue mix to make purple, a personification of love (see the first rendition of “City of Stars,” or the stunning waltz in through the galaxy), Chazelle all too often doesn’t let the colors mix. Their clothes, their light, their neon – it rarely finds a place to comingle.

Though Mia and Sebastian’s lives grow increasingly intertwined, there’s always something holding them back from a seamless meld. They can’t return to the promise and passion of that first purple dance in the stars. That is, until the the “Epilogue.”

Once Chazelle’s set the stage with his building blocks of color, he’s constantly playing with how they interact: The aforementioned purple, or the mix of yellow’s change and blue’s control to yield the uncertainty of green (see the second rendition of “City of Stars” as Sebastian mulls selling his soul to The Messengers, or Mia’s outfits when she’s deciding to go on a date with Seb or commit to her dreams).

But he also knows when to withdraw them entirely. Mia’s non-entity boyfriend Greg is only seen in monochrome, just as Seb is seen in black and white during the photoshoot that causes him to miss Mia’s play. Because Chazelle is using the bright colors of La La Land as an homage to grand Hollywood musicals, black and white isn’t used to represent a call back to the past so much as to suggest a blank slate. While towards the beginning of the film it’s used as a clear slate of possibilities, by the end it’s to represent the faded promise of their relationship. After Mia’s botched opening night, when they’re at their lowest moments, they’re both in black and white, devoid of color.

That expressionistic coloring was present throughout La La Land, as Mia and Sebastian’s relationship gradually desaturates the movie as a whole. The full spectrum of colors – part of our introduction to the city of Los Angeles’s traffic, dreamers, and the city itself – becomes paler and more pastel, until finally there’s nothing left but black, white, and an argument in the street.

It’s what makes the “Epilogue” sequence so striking, visually and emotionally. We return to the old scenes of their relationship, Sebastian reconsiders his decisions, and for the first time we see Mia and Sebastian surrounded by a full rainbow.

As it plays, the movie uses the full color range to explore that something was always missing from their relationship; just as you can’t have rain without the sunshine or success without the hard work, Mia and Sebastian couldn’t live their lives in only one color scheme. By strategically deploying colors throughout the film, Chazelle makes the case that they were, in some sense, doomed to fail because they could never fully find their footing.

A full spectrum means balance and work. From the beginning, the film suggests there was always something they had to sacrifice with their relationship, whether it was their creative drive, the possibility for change, or the promise of living the dream. As the Epilogue’s final notes hang in the air, Seb’s club is dimly lit by only three colors: red, yellow, and blue. For once La La Land gives Sebastian and Mia a balance. In hindsight, it was just always making it clear that it was something they could never have found with each other.

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Zosha Millman is a writer for the SeattlePI, an associate editor for Bright Wall/Dark Room, and hard endorser of various TV shows. You can find her on Twitter @zosham.