Early in La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle), Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) declares himself to be a phoenix, rising from the ashes of a broken relationship and the aftermath of a financial swindling at his expense. In many ways he is broken and down on his luck, but he would hardly see it that way. He ignores the “past due” notices in his apartment because he’s so full of life and consumed with a passion for Jazz that he hardly notices the real world around him.
La La Land plays with dichotomies like that. While Sebastian is stuck in the clouds, ignoring the ground, the film bounces back and forth between old and nostalgic and surprisingly modern. It’s easy to forget this is set in modern day Los Angeles until you hear someone’s iPhone ringing, signaling the end of a song.
The story is about two people, Sebastian and Mia (Emma Stone) who pursue careers in entertainment, he a Jazz musician and her an actress. They fall in love, of course, but the story is about the push and pull and the strains that these individual career goals put on a relationship. In the end, the movie suggests that real life is not like the movies, where you can get everything you want.
Still, the movie rewards its two main characters by granting them their wish from the beginning of the film. Sebastian desperately wants to revive old Jazz music and start a club, which he does, almost exactly as he wanted to with no compromises. Similarly, Mia, who works as a barista on a movie studio lot, looks up in wonder at the actresses around her. In one scene a famous yet unnamed actress strolls to the counter for her cappuccino, and the way Mia looks at her suggests she’s the embodiment of everything Mia wants to become. By the end of the movie, Mia is that person, strolling into the same exact coffee shop to order two iced coffees and receiving similarly wide-eyed expressions of wonder from the employees.
It’s funny, though, because when we first saw that unnamed movie actress, all I saw was someone enveloped in fame and not passion. That actress, particularly because of the way she walked, the sunglasses she wore, and the way the camera never bothered to look right at her, suggested she’s not that important, just another actress. But this highlights the difference between Mia and Sebastian.
To Mia, that actress stood out, and all Mia wants is to stand out. Conversely, all Sebastian wants to do is to fit in, but he struggles because he’s afraid of fitting in. So while Mia goes through audition after audition, blending in with the almost identical-looking actresses around her, she yearns to rise above them. The problem, though, is that she’s doing nothing to stand out. She’s afraid to stand out, and it’s not until Sebastian helps convince her to write her own material that she eventually finds success. On a walk together through the movie lot, Sebastian probes Mia and she opens up about why she got into acting in the first place. It is because of her exposure to and affinity for old films as a child. She has to realize that she doesn’t want to be a famous actress so much as she just wants to act. This makes her more like Sebastian in his love for classic Jazz music.
But Sebastian stands out in the wrong way. He goes from gig to gig, playing the piano and eventually quitting or getting fired, because he can’t stick to the script. While Mia is dedicated to the words on the page as written, Sebastian just wants to throw them out. At a restaurant during Christmas time, Sebastian has to play the standard holiday songs, but when he breaks the routine and plays something he actually wants to play (also catching Mia’s attention), he is promptly fired.
Like Sebastian helped Mia, she helps him by urging him to not sever ties with people so quickly. Sebastian’s friend Keith (John Legend) extends a hand and offers him a role in his band, which is a blend of electronica and Jazz music. At first disgusted by the genre, Sebastian slowly comes around, stubbornly admitting that there is some benefit to compromise. He does this to get a more steady gig and to be able to afford the lifestyle he wants to live.
The problem, of course is that he starts to fit in too much, and it takes Mia to point out that he shouldn’t be doing this job if he hates the music so much. In a quiet scene showing their first fight, Mia and Sebastian begin to realize that their careers are taking them in different directions. It’s the first real acknowledgement that the relationship might not work as they expected it to.
Soon after this moment, Mia performs a one woman play, having been encouraged by Sebastian. The play seems like a severe failure as hardly anyone shows up, not even Sebastian who had to attend a photoshoot that seemed to symbolize everything he felt was wrong about his band and the more “pop” part of the music industry.
Mia tells Sebastian “it’s over” and for a moment we’re convinced she’s talking about their relationship when really she’s referring to her pursuit of an acting career. This one line equates the two pursuits (love and career) because those two dreams are so intertwined. Mia and Sebastian’s relationship is built on dreaming, and if they each compromised their career, their relationship might suffer for it.
It’s interesting that each character’s low point, in terms of career, is so different. Mia’s is quiet, moving back home to Nevada after leaving Los Angeles, and Sebastian’s is a moment in which all the attention is on him and his band, whether it’s with the grating photographer or on stage in front of a sold out audience.
After their break up, Sebastian receives a call from a casting agent looking for Mia. It turns out the casting agent saw her performance and wants her to audition for a big movie. Sebastian tracks down Mia (the lack of cell phones helping to expedite the plot again makes this feel like an older film), and he encourages her to audition.
In her audition, Mia is told to tell a story about anything she wants. She talks about her aunt who jumped into a freezing river once, and though it seemed horribly cold, “she said she’d do it again,” and the way she softly utters “again” shows how out of breath she is, as if gut punched by the whole experience and the recognition that it’s over.
It’s this moment, a wonderfully cinematic and wholly consuming and captivating and everything else you might want to say moment that Mia recognizes the crossroads she will be at if she’s lucky. If she gets this part, thus realizing a dream of hers, she will probably (and inevitably) have to end another, which is the relationship with Sebastian. At the same time, she accepts that the romance with Sebastian is important because of how it helped her (and him) grow professionally and personally. In other words, their romance was not all for naught simply because it doesn’t work out in the end in the Hollywood riding off into the sunset type of way. It works out in another way. The softly spoken “again” is the recognition of the dream that must be abandoned for the dream she’s always held.
Mia gets the part, and five years later we meet our protagonists again. Mia is a famous actress, married to another man and the mother of a young child. Sebastian owns and operates his own club, called Seb’s, the name Mia once suggested. Both are wildly successful in terms of personal goals from the beginning of the story.
Mia and her husband almost mistakenly come upon Seb’s, and when Sebastian sees her he is almost completely paralyzed, like he’s seen a ghost. He sits down at the piano and softly begins to play the notes that have become the theme of their relationship.
These delicate notes are grounded in reality, but then the strings come in and lift you into the sky as we revisit the entire film while Mia remembers both how it unfolded and how it could have unfolded if it all went perfectly. The music is at once kinetic, desperate and supremely confident in the feelings its trying to convey. This reflects the characters who, though they might wish their relationship had turned out differently, know that it happened the way it did for a reason. There was meaning in its death, if you can even call it a death. It’s a rebirth, like the phoenix rising from the ashes that Sebastian declared himself to be early in the film.
This final sequence suggests the relationship they could have had in La La Land, but they’re not in La La Land, they’re in the real world where not everything works exactly as you would have liked.
There is something inherently manic about musicals. They bounce back and forth between these high-energy, sprawling song and dance numbers and the rest of the moments in between, quieter and full of restraint.
The movie opens with a familiar Los Angeles traffic jam, but then everyone gets out of their car and performs an impressively choreographed song and dance. It sets the stage for the rest of the film, boldly saying “this is a musical” as if warning you to get out know if you’re not a musical-type of person. But when the song ends, they all get back in their cars, still stuck in traffic. It’s a good microcosm for the rest of the film, particularly because both Mia and Sebastian (at the time still strangers) and the rest of the strangers are stuck in traffic. There’s this grand performance, yet at the end we’re still stuck in reality. I watched this film with a group of friends and during this performance one of them whispered “I wish traffic was more like this,” and of course you do! I do too. But it’s not, and that’s what the film is saying. We wish something were like this, but it’s not.
And that’s the whole film in a nutshell. In your fantasies you get the career, the love interest, etc. all at once. And the musical is the perfect form for this story. The movie balances between these large performances as the characters howl at the moon in pursuit of these wildly improbable dreams. Then we return to the cold reality, as if waking up from an actual dream.
In one scene, Mia’s roommates convince her to go to a party with them. They sing and dance as they prepare for the night, and the party itself is full of people singing and dancing, suggesting that everyone is a part of this living, breathing, heart-beating single organism. It’s the way we would all like to see the world, as this singular thing, moving in unison. In this performance, though, everyone knows they’re a part of a greater whole, but once the song ends, there Mia is, alone on a city street realizing her car has been towed. It’s a splash of ice cold water to the face.
There are a lot of similarities between this film and (500) Days of Summer, another love story set in Los Angeles that ultimately ends without the two main characters together. In both cases the protagonists aspire to something that might not even be possible given their circumstances. Anyone who aspires to be a musician or an actor or anything creative is kind of crazy if they hope to make a financially-stable career out of it. I mean, sometimes it works, but it’s such a long, hard process that it’s often easier to abandon those dreams rather than to suffer for them. In Summer, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has similar dreams, but they’re all wrapped up in Summer (Zooey Deschanel) or the made up version of her he has created in his mind. In the end of that film Tom has quit the job he hates to pursue a more engaging career as an architect, and Summer is married to a man we don’t know. Both films deal with someone whose head is in the clouds then returning to reality but adapting to survive in that reality.
This film is also awesome purely for its visual and technical achievement. Like Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash (2014), the film has its own rhythm. Every scene kind of feels like a song, even the non-musical ones. There is rhythm to the way characters speak and move, showing how even non-dance choreography is still choreography. In that early scene between Sebastian and his sister (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), for example, there is no musical performance, but the scene is funny and fast-paced. Sebastian pleads for her to not sit on a stool that is steeped in Jazz history, she then says he would buy a rug off her if she told him Miles Davis had peed on it. Sebastian laughs this off before saying, “did he?” Meanwhile the whole thing (to my recollection) is filmed in a single shot, like a dance number. The camera is wide to show both characters and how they move in the space, and the whole thing is well-choreographed.
Almost all of the musical numbers are shot similarly, with wide lenses and swooping camera movements. This echoes the way older musicals were filmed (to the best of my knowledge), and it contains both main characters in a single shot, moving together like in the same current.
In two important scenes, however, Mia and Sebastian are framed separately in their own close ups. In one scene, during their first fight, their faces occupy a majority of the screen and it feels a little claustrophobic after all the space we’ve become accustomed to. Suddenly there’s no fluidity to their movement and no real movement at all. They are once again stuck in reality, aware of the sudden implausibility of their professional dreams. In that scene, despite the literal proximity between both characters, they might as well be thousands of miles apart.
In another scene, the final scene, we see Mia venture into Seb’s, seeing Sebastian for the first time in five years. They are framed similarly as the fight scene, each with their own close ups. It helps to drown out the noise, showing that nothing else and no one else matters in that club, just the two of them. Like before they are physically close to each other but might as well be worlds apart, but the feeling is a different one. That distance isn’t so horrible, it’s just hard to imagine since they both know they have achieved something they wanted. That distance is a recognition of what they shared and what they paid to make it happen. It’s an understanding that their romance was hardly in vain, and in fact, because of the way it shaped the rest of their lives, it is something that will forever live on, even if only in their dreams, those things they decided never to let go. So while some romances end because of dreams abandoned, this one ended because of dreams embraced.