La La Land

La La Land ★★★★★

Here's to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem

Those lines from Mia's audition song in La La Land appear to operate as a succinct thesis statement for the film's broader message. Damien Chazelle's latest film, which raked in close to $450 million at the box office, is often referred to as an ode to classic Hollywood, a story that inspires us to dream bigger. In this way, there's a clear disparity between the film's ideological perspective and the more rational choices the rest of us make in our daily lives. Naturally, the way La La Land operates as a fantasy is really appealing. With "real life" as tormenting as it is, La La Land provides a technicolor escape filled with optimism, fulfilled dreams, and romance.

All of that said, the film's epilogue doesn't align with this escapist fantasy. In fact, it works directly against it, drawing a clear contradiction in the way I understand its message. After following Mia and Seb over the course of a year, watching them fall in love, struggle for their dreams, and then actually achieve them, the film jumps ahead five years. Mia is now a famous actress, married with a child. Sebastian owns his jazz club, one that appears to be doing just fine. Mia and Seb the couple? No longer. They threw in the towel in their romance in order to make their dreams a reality. After Mia locks eyes with Sebastian in the club, the film transitions into a magical, dizzying, and frankly extraordinary sequence that replays the events of the film with a different ending: Mia and Seb stay together. But in this sequence, it's crucial to see how it follows Mia and only Mia. Sebastian's club never appears; he goes with her to Paris to film her movie instead. At the end of the sequence, mirroring a scene from minutes before with Mia and her husband, Seb and Mia walk into a jazz club that isn't his. Seb's dreams don't come true. There are all sorts of implications you could draw from this, but to me it's clear that the film is intentionally creating tension between our dreams and our happiness.

Every shot of Mia and Sebastian in the club at the end of the film is filled with regret. They look at each other teary-eyed, as if they missed their chance with one another. This regret contrasts the success they have both had. In five years both Mia and Seb have had their dreams realized and even then, it's not enough to fill the void left by the other person. From this point of view, it's hard to view La La Land as anything besides a cautionary tale. Careerism, the prioritization of lofty goals and dreams, need not exceed our desire for compassion, love, and companionship. In this way, La La Land seems to tap into reality more than we've given it credit for.

Perhaps this is too binary. A more measured analysis would say that you can have both, you don't have to pick. I don't think you do! But I think demonstrations of these choices, like those in La La Land are revealing. Seb and Mia came to so many intersections where they sped through a yellow light, where they stayed straight when they should have turned right. This is especially evident in the film's second act after Sebastian goes on tour with his band. They are both in the baby stages of their careers and they are already making decisions that undermine their relationship; Sebastian not discussing his decision to join the band with Mia, Mia turning down traveling with Sebastian, Sebastian choosing a photo-shoot over Mia's show, etc etc. These two people, so in love with each other, are too caught up in seeking out achievement to take care of one other, to make it work.

I don't say this to critique the film. I find these elements of the movie to be endlessly compelling. This tension between dreams and true love is heartbreaking to watch and grounded in such truth. I can't help feel like these elements of the film are really undervalued, especially by those who seek to reduce this movie to something that it's not.

The second half of the verse from Mia's audition song goes like this:

Here's to the hearts that ache
Here's to the mess we make

It's intentionally prophetic. La La Land ends with Mia and Seb looking at each other with such overwhelming heartache that it's a wonder to me that people have called the movie emotionless or hollow. They are caught up in their own mess, as inescapable as it is avoidable.

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