La la land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle (2016).
There are films that touch us and there are films that grab us by the lapels. And then there are films that reach into our heart and grasp it, and things are quite not the same for a while. These films are rare and wonderful and we cherish them, even if they hurt. La la land is many things. It’s a musical, but not in the stricter sense. It’s a love story, a self-discovery story, a love letter to jazz and film and a reflection on what dreams are made of.
Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress in present-day Los Angeles. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist whose ambition is to open his own club. She’s mesmerised upon hearing him play at a restaurant by chance. After some belligerent sexual tension, they start a romance. He encourages her to write her own play to make a difference. She reminds him that he shouldn’t give up his dream of a club, even if it’s hard or he has doubts. They are hell-bent on achieving their goals, but it’s not easy.
The first act of the movie feels like a modern-day Fred Astaire movie. There’s jazzy singing and dancing that moves the plot forward and explains the characters and their motivations. It follows the cliché of young girl coming to the city of dreams to become a star, who might as well rock the world of tormented and self-destructive romantic artist. And then it all gets deconstructed.
The singing and dancing stops and gets replaced with dialogue as they face mundane conundrums: should I risk it by making something new? Should I bet on this potentially great idea or stick with the well-paid job that’s not so bad but not what I had wanted? Music is still central to the movie, much like in Whiplash, but it’s not a musical drama anymore; it only comes back in the climactic moment when dreams are true again.
At one point, Keith says to Sebastian: “How can you be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” It looks like Chazelle was telling that to himself: his first third of movie takes the form of a Broadway musical, bearing many similarities with classics such as Singin’ in the rain. But then he decides he needs to make something new. There are already small clues right from the opening number that tell you you’re about to see something different: the emphasis is on dreams, not on love. Mia and Sebastian have personalities, aspirations and ambitions, they don’t just live for each other’s love. And loving each other is not enough: they make mistakes, take chances and live with them. This is a great departure from the Hollywood romance, which stops right after they have fallen in love and start dating. Hollywood never tells you about their falling out, about the difficulties they find. It’s just happily ever after and that’s all the depth you’re getting.
The movie’s been criticized for casting Stone and Gosling. For me, they’re better than Miles Teller and Emma Watson would have been, but we’ll just never know. Nothing’s perfect but I feel Stone and Gosling were good choices because despite not being great dancers and singers, they have something the movie needs more than that: they’re sympathetic and relatable. In the end, there’s just one tap-dancing number and it’s correct.
The ending is what gives sense to everything else in this movie: it goes beyond the happily ever after and appeals to an experience almost everyone has had. It doesn’t only speak about dreams but also about life. It has haunted me for days and days; I find it hard to speak impartially about this movie because it managed to get an intense emotional response from me, and that’s not something that happens every day.
Now, please allow me to analyse the film further, with spoilers.
It’s not the first movie about romance gone wrong. I can think of two unconventional romance movies that predate this one and work in the same line: (500) days of Summer and Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. If you substract the epilogue from La la land, it becomes very similar to (500) days of Summer, though I think that while La la land ran in panic from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, (500) days of Summer embraced her and that makes it an inferior movie. As for Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, it focuses on the regret that La la land only works with in the epilogue.
First of, I love that there are many plausible interpretations for the epilogue sequence, and that makes it deeply rich. My own visceral interpretation and the one I feel works best is that the epilogue shows Sebastian’s and possibly Mia’s regrets. The scene where he just bumps into her is changed so that he kisses her instead, which cues us visually to what we’re about to see: a fantasy, a world were things were better. The most important changes are Sebastian never goes to play with The Messengers, their relationship is not deteriorated by that, so he can go with her to Paris, they stay together and eventually have a child. Some other events that have nothing to do with their actions are improved, namely that the theatre is packed when Mia’s play premieres. The reason the ending is so powerful for me is that most of us have had that kind of regrets: we were in a situation we didn’t know how to handle and time shows us that we made the wrong choice. This happens with couples a lot, but it could also happen with family or friends. One reason life is tragic is because we make mistakes that cannot be unmade, and we have to live with them. Life is a book where we sketch and sketch but we seem to never have fully under control as a complete work. For this reason it’s very important that Mia and Sebastian are human and rounded characters: if they were not, we wouldn’t be able to relate to them, to walk in their shoes, which is essential to the effect I believe the movie is seeking.
Another very interesting interpretation is posed by Youtuber BryceMakesFilms, and it goes that the epilogue sequence is what the movie would have been like if it were a Hollywood romance: perfect, uncomplicated, boring. This would be Chazelle being explicit about his choices and driving deep the idea that life is not a movie and sacrifices must be made. This approach, opposed to the one that gives people unreal fantasies as entertainment, works towards the emotional effect on the viewer. This interpretation explains why the boss (played by J. K. Simmons) treats them nicely and shows them out of the restaurant and why the theatre is full at Mia’s premiere. Also, dancing is a visual metaphor for romance and courting in classical musicals, and so is in this movie… partly. Mia and Sebastian dance during Lovely night, and then at the Planetarium, where they kiss for the first time. And then they don’t dance anymore until the epilogue sequence, which is again codified visually as a traditional Hollywood movie.
Some other people have interpreted that while Mia and Sebastian think about what might have been when they see each other after five years, they are still happy with the choices they’ve made, since both have achieved their dreams: she is a movie star and he has a successful jazz club; they smile at each other and part their separate ways. Furthermore, some people argue that the epilogue is not a happy ending, as Sebastian gives up his jazz club in it to be with Mia. Chazelle is very sneaky about this, since in the epilogue the club is exactly the same except we never see the neon sign that says “Seb’s”. We’re not shown another name either, we just don’t know whether it’s his club or not. Some people completely ditch the emphasis Chazelle puts in working towards your personal goals and see the epilogue as having the moral that love should be above everything else. This interpretation is the only one I don’t buy at all: it was made completely clear that this movie wanted to be about chasing your dreams.
Music is essential to experiencing this movie and after listening to the soundtrack extensively, here are some things that I figured out.
There are five major leitmotifs and some minor ones that structure the soundtrack and support the plot: Another day of sun, Mia & Sebastian’s theme, City of stars, Planetarium and Audition. This is very few actual songs: a regular musical has about twice as many routines and maybe the most important song is reprised, but that’s it. The reason is that these leitmotifs are meant to be imbued by symbolic meaning as the movie progresses: these songs not only tell a story through their lyrics, they also encode emotions and meaning that are up to each individual viewer to interpret.
The opening number, Another day of sun, sets us up for what we are going to see: “I think about that day / I left him at a Greyhound station / West of Santa Fe / We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true / Still I did what I had to do / ‘Cause I just knew”. It’s going to be a movie about people who choose their career over their sweethearts; but we’re so used to this behaviour being punished that we will ignore this and root for the lovebirds.
Someone in the crowd uses the same leitmotif as Another day of sun because it deals with the same theme: Mia is waiting for someone to discover her and help her become a star. “Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know / The someone who could lift you off the ground / Someone in the crowd could take you where you wanna go / Someone in the crowd could make you / Someone in the crowd could take you / Flying off the ground / If you’re the someone ready to be found.” On first viewing, it seems to be clearly about Mia wanted to be discovered by a producer or casting director. This eventually happens, but only when she’s spurred by Sebastian to make a difference by taking a huge risk. On second viewing, it’s not so clear. It could also be about Sebastian: without his support, she would have never made it. But this movie mocks the concept of needing to be in a romantic relationship to be complete and successful, so I think that possible relation to Sebastian is only there to draw attention to the fact that there are more things in Mia’s life than Sebastian.
When Mia and Sebastian meet for the first time, he’s improvising a tune on the piano that’s called simply Mia & Sebastian’s theme. This leitmotif is used throughout the movie to portray nostalgia: he plays it again when he sees her at his club with her new husband. Since it’s the song he was playing when they met, it makes him wonder how things could have been instead. How come a song that only appears twice has such a big impact on the audience? Because Planetarium is built on variations of it.
The next musical routine is Lovely night. Some people have argued that this also clues us to Mia and Sebastian not ending up together but I think it’s a textbook example of belligerent sexual tension, which also happened in Singin’ in the rain. It’s a playful tune followed by a tapdancing routine still in the classic Hollywood corset. The last musical routine of the first act is the instrumental Planetarium. Mia and Sebastian dance dreamily among the stars and seal their romance with a kiss. Unlike Lovely night, which never reappears, Planetarium’s leitmotif (which actually comes from Mia & Sebastian’s theme) reappears in the epilogue symbolising their ideal relationship; in it, they dance again, this time on a starry black floor.
Chazelle wants to be a revolutionary, and not only in screenwriting, but also with a new way of making musicals. Our sensitivity in the past decades has changed so that mainstream audiences tend to find it risible when movie characters start singing and dancing out of the blue; it’s even worse when passerbys and janitors join in on the chroreography and know all the lyrics by heart. After the first act, La la land abandons this procedure and advocates a new way of storytelling through music.
The first step is City of stars. This is a song that Sebastian is trying to write, inspired by his experiences. Its lyrics change throughout the movie: the first time we hear it, it says: “City of stars / Are you shining just for me? / City of stars / There’s so much that I can’t see / Who knows? / Is this the start of something wonderful and new? / Or one more dream that I cannot make true?” Later on, by the end of the second act, Mia helps him continue the song, which goes: “City of stars / Just one thing everybody wants / There in the bars / And through the smokescreen of the crowded restaurants / It’s love / Yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else.” The song has changed from his insecurities about his relationship with Mia to relief that he’s happy with her. If I understood correctly, Youtube user TheCreepypro argues that Sebastian can’t finish Mia & Sebastian’s theme until the epilogue, when their story is over. I cannot prove it, but I believe that’s just the case with City of stars: there’s a final iteration of the song in the epilogue sequence. It has no lyrics and plays over a montage of the two of them starting a family. Maybe there were no words that could do it justice and he decided to make it into an instrumental piece.
In the other hand, music is prominent in the second act in different ways. Mia and Sebastian’s relationship is illustrated using montages with jazz music. They go to clubs and dance and play. Furthermore, they discuss jazz in ways that relate to their story and their life. Sebastian explains that jazz was born as a form of communication between people who couldn’t understand each other; he says it’s tension and compromise. Much like their relationship. As I already mentioned, Keith and Sebastian discuss their need to take risks and make something new, just like jazz does. We could start a fire is part of this narrative. This is a new way of making music central to a movie, without having the characters dance to music only they can hear.
As the third act starts, Mia is granted an audition with an influential casting director. And she sings to music only she can hear. What this does is present her speech to us in the form of a musical metaphor, pretty much what musical drama has been doing forever. We assume that what she’s saying is not the lyrics, without singing, but something else we are presented with in a lyrical form. Her life is a dream, a wonderful movie again, so she sings. Moreover, the singing and dancing of the third act is essentially different from that of the first act. In the first act they’re singing and dancing in-universe: other characters dance with them too. In the third act, their singing and dancing is fully a visual metaphor: what the other characters are seeing is not shown to us, but instead we receive a musical metaphor for what is happening. As for the epilogue, it’s telling a section of the story using exclusively music, dance and image. It’s arguably the most important sequence of the movie and it’s fully in musical form. Even better, since it’s not using words, it’s open to interpretation, as seen above. I believe this is Chazelle’s bet for revitalizing musical drama.
Finally, the epilogue brings full symbolism to the leitmotifs used troughout the movie. Sebastian sits at his piano and starts out with Mia & Sebastian’s theme. We see the scene where they met at the restaurant again, but this time he kisses her and the Planetarium theme plays, which symbolizes the best of their relationship. They get interrupted by the Another day of sun theme and they leave the restaurant. They are optimistic and willing to make their dreams true. Everything goes great and they make no mistakes. When Mia arrives at her audition, the theme from Audition starts. This mirrors the real events, until they fly together to Paris. The Paris montage continues with Audition and then goes back and forth to the Planetarium theme. City of stars, the song related to Sebastian’s non-club dreams, illustrates the montage about them living together and having a child. Given that this is Sebastian’s theme, I’m inclined to think his dreams were leaning towards a family more than he had let through up to this moment. The epilogue closes with the leitmotif from Mia & Sebastian’s theme again. He can’t bring himself to play the last few notes, but the audience applauds at the silence anyway.
Like with Audition, we don’t really know what Sebastian actually played. We only see what feelings that song inspires on the two of them. Did he play a complete version of Mia & Sebastian’s theme we’ll never get to hear? City of stars? Something else entirely? These two are the only songs that exist in-universe, so it’s not possible that he actually played the medley the way we heard it.
For these reasons, I believe La la land will be a highly influential movie that’s going to open a path for more like it. And I’m excited.