La La Land: A Tribute to Twentieth Century Hollywood

3 mins read

“La La Land,” a vibrant, dreamy musical film directed by Damien Chazelle, depicts the difficult reality of hopeful individuals trying to find their voice in modern Los Angeles’ competitive art scene. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as Mia Dolan, a passionate actress, and Sebastian Wilder, a jazz musician, who cross paths and struggle to balance chasing their lifelong dreams and loving one another.

The film is infused with homages paid to the rich history of Old Hollywood, particularly alive in L.A.

These references serve to both contrast the actors’ colorful dreams with their hopeless realities, as well as to bring an effervescent feel to the musical and pay tribute to classics that captured Los Angeles at the peak of the film industry. As Robert Levin of amNewYork stated, “Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ is a love letter to Los Angeles.”

“Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)

James Dean and Nathalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Credit: Classic Hollywood Central.


Mia and Sebastian’s drive up to the Griffith Observatory pays homage to James Dean and Nathalie Wood’s similar trip in Nicholas Ray’s classic film. Their dance through the stars is a reference to Dean and Wood’s romantic scene in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium.

The Rialto movie theatre

Rialto Theatre


This historic movie theatre in Pasadena, CA, was built in 1925, serving the area during the peak of Old Hollywood’s movie production. Location manager Robert Faulkes said movie director Chazelle chose this location for Mia and Sebastian’s first date due to its historical relevance and because “he loved the old red velvet seats that are still in there.”

Casablanca” (1943)



Following her failed audition, Mia throws herself on her bed below a large poster of movie star Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish actress and Humphrey Bogart starred together in Michael Curtiz’s film, which Chazelle also paid homage to and looked to for inspiration regarding the Old Hollywood feel. Discovering that the famous Casablanca window is across the street from the Warner Bros. lot coffee shop Mia works at, Chazelle immediately worked this reference into his movie when Mia points it out to Sebastian.

“Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967)


“Umbrellas of Cherbourg”

Production designer David Wasco and Chazelle found particular inspiration in these two films by Jacques Demy. They were drawn to the bright, primary colors exhibited both in the clothing and settings of the movies’ scenes, which gave the films an overall vibrant, classy feel. Chazelle also borrowed from the tap and jazz evident in the later film. Demy’s impression is especially evident in the opening freeway scene of “La La Land.”

“A Bigger Splash” (1967)

“A Bigger Splash” by David Hockney


“Pool parties are synonymous with Los Angeles,” said Wasco. He used this painting and others by David Hockney as 1960s inspiration for the daytime pool party Mia attends.

“Cinderella” (1957): “A Lovely Night”



Lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote a humorous spin on Richard Rodgers’ “A Lovely Night” to pay homage to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. With the same title, Pasek and Paul’s version instead adopts a sarcastic tone, with lyrics such as “we stumbled on a view that’s tailored made for two — what a shame those two are you and me.”

“Top Hat” (1935) and “Singing in The Rain” (1952)


“Top Hat”

Every Friday night during filming, Chazelle held a screening where the cast regularly viewed these movies among a couple of others for Old Hollywood inspiration. Stone was particularly inspired by the impressive Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap combinations (pictured above) in the earlier film, displaying her learnings in the demanding lookout scene with Gosling, which took two days to film. The long takes, uninterrupted film shots lasting much longer than usual, were also classic to Astaire and Rogers tap routines; film producers used these to display the pair’s mistake-free performances throughout the course of an entire scene, and Chazelle applied this technique to Stone and Gosling’s tap routine as well. Gosling also admired the late Debbie Reynolds’s performance in the later 1952 film, stating on January 2 that “she was an inspiration to us… we watched ‘Singing in the Rain’ every day… a truly unparalleled talent so thank you to her.”

Technicolor and CinemaScope


“How to Marry A Millionaire”

Chazelle adopted a saturation of color and widescreen frames to resemble the 1940s popularity of Technicolor and the 1950s popularity of the CinemaScope lens, demonstrated in the above shot of the film “How to Marry A Millionaire” (1953).

“An Affair to Remember” (1957)


“An Affair to Remember.” Credit:
Hooked on Houses

Chazelle set this frame as his computer desktop image for the year-long duration of “La La Land’s” screen editing to remind him of the vibrant, dramatic atmosphere he was trying to recreate. He was particularly drawn to the bright primary colors used in McCarey’s classic French Riviera film, he said.

By including stylistic and scenic references to film classics in his new movie “La La Land,” Chazelle paid tribute to and exhibited his admiration for Classical Hollywood cinema. “I love all these things that the modern world tells us are marginalized now or outdated,” he stated. He is now able to share this opinion with a rapidly growing audience; the movie has already received rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and broken records at the Golden Globe Awards.

My name is Martha McGee. I am a senior and new to the M-A Chronicle. I enjoy reading and sharing opinions as well as getting to know different members of our community better. In my free time, I enjoy spending time in the outdoors with my family and friends. I am also passionate about music, and play violin for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

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