This Valentine’s Day, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is an obvious choice for couples heading to the theaters this Valentine’s Day. Yet, despite the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the real love story of the film is between the filmmakers and their idealized and completely unrealistic version of Los Angeles.
My suspension of disbelief was pushed to the limit when I watched La La Land which is supposedly set in a modern day Los Angeles. As a society with a movie-going culture, we have an understanding that in order to immerse ourselves in a film, we often must forget about real-life circumstances and suspend our disbelief. This is what allows non-fantasy or science fiction films to pack such a punch — we can easily believe that the story unfolding on the screen before us could actually happen outside of the theater (and, as the case is with numerous dramas, already has).
Before I dive into specifics, let me reassure you — I enjoyed La La Land. The songs were snappy, the cinematography and usage of color was the best I’ve seen since Breaking Bad aired, and — against all odds — Stone and Gosling were believable as struggling artists Mia and Sebastian (despite being unreasonably good-looking, even for the entertainment industry).
My number-one reason for wanting to see this film, however, was the Los Angeles scenery porn exemplified in the trailers. I was born and raised in LA, and a lot of the locations featured in the film were familiar to me — I’ve strolled across the Colorado Street Bridge where Stone as Mia and Gosling as Sebastian take a romantic walk. I’ve played at the Santa Monica Pier where Sebastian charmingly mumbles through a song about dreams. And I’ve dined at The Smoke House, a restaurant where Sebastian plays lackluster Christmas carols on the piano and gets fired by a character played by J.K. Simmons. This is also a scene my movie buddy and I referred to as “Whiplash 2” .
Since I was most invested in the interpretation of LA in La La Land, that was what I critiqued the hardest when watching the film (warning — spoilers below!).
A lot of the locations used in La La Land were used merely for decoration, not so much for plot reasons — most weren’t even mentioned by name. Those that were name-dropped in the film were often portrayed inaccurately.
For example, in the beginning of the film, Mia works at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers Studio lot. I watched this movie with a friend of mine whose father works for WB, and she informed me that such a coffee shop doesn’t exist.
During an extended musical number set in Griffith Observatory, Mia and Sebastian waltz in midair inside the planetarium. The scene was visually stunning and probably the best in the film, but it was the scene that broke my suspension of disbelief the most — not because Mia and Sebastian were literally levitating, but because they essentially broke into the observatory without a second thought, complete with Mia driving her car onto the walkway in front of the building.
The biggest injustice of La La Land, in my eyes, was reviving closed-down businesses from the dead. In a cutesy date montage, Mia and Sebastian ride Angel’s Flight Railway, which closed in 2013 after numerous derailments and one fatal accident. Chazelle was able to put Stone and Gosling on a functioning railway car for the scene, thanks to an undisclosed but probably hefty amount of money. The California Public Utilities Commission spoke out about the scene, saying that the usage of Angel’s Flight wasn’t exactly legal (LAist).
The other reanimating miracle La La Land performed was that of the Rialto Theater (located in South Pasadena), where Mia and Sebastian have their first date. This broke my heart the most because I grew up down the street from the Rialto, and I remember when it closed down in 2010. I passed it on my walk home numerous times; the doors were all boarded. In 2014 the Rialto was reopened by a developer, and is currently open on occasion for specialized fundraising events but isn’t something you can easily plan a date to.
The treatment of LA in La La Land, while visually beautiful, was possibly the film’s biggest flaw —other than John Legend’s mustard turtleneck. For a film that proclaims itself to be a love letter to Los Angeles, it ignores many aspects of history that make Los Angeles what it is today.
However, La La Land achieved what it intended to do -— it was a film that let artists know how necessary we are, particularly in a societal climate where we are feeling less and less relevant, making the artistic liberties it took, somehow appropriate.