Love it or hate it, La La Land has certainly made a splash. With $40m and multiple awards in hand, it’s a cultural touchstone that nearly everyone has seen, pretended to see, or at least formed an opinion on. What can semiotics tell us about the film’s appeal – and more broadly, about what brands can learn from it?
Where cinematography is concerned, La La Land’s spectacular green-screen effects and bright, bursting colours signal polished perfection. To quote The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, the film looks so “delicious” that you want to “lick it”. Even the characters’ arguments are beautiful to watch. This whole effect is, moreover, reinforced by the demands of genre. Like other musical movies, La La Land brims with practiced showmanship: just think of the dance scene on the freeway, where bombastic choreography codes an slick, romanticised version of reality.
But if La La Land’s visual styling is over the top, its protagonists are not. Mia’s audition piece about her aunt is pointedly artless, while Sebastian’s jazz compositions are almost frustratingly basic – so much so that some have labelled them uninventive. Both characters are also very uncomplicated, personality-wise: one might say that Sebastian approaches a stereotype, while Mia is largely an enigma (we never find out what her passion project, a one-woman play, is about). Even their outfits connote preppy high street wear, signalling pleasant and accessible simplicity.
Ultimately, then, La La Land succeeds by combining two qualities that might seem opposed– idealistic perfection and approachable simplicity. This strategy is one that successful brands often use in order to signify a life that is magical, yet within consumers’ reach. Think of Ikea’s “Wonderful Everyday” ads, where quotidian moments are elevated with the romantic sheen of imagination. Or of Instagram, where even humble food photos can be filtered to look like high art. Even this Coca Cola advert deploys a similar strategy, combining a family’s everyday hijinks with cinematic epic-ness to produce a charming narrative.
Like these brands, La La Land captures consumers by mastering the balance between the accessible and aspirational – offering glimpses of a life where one can be stuck in freeway traffic, yet dancing like Gene Kelly. If brands can learn anything from Damien Chazelle, it’s how to depict a ‘good life’ that consumers feel comfortable aspiring to, rather than intimidated by.