The powerful and universal message behind the popular film.
Warning, spoilers ahead
Like most nice things that get popular, after a few weeks of buzzing praise, La La Land found itself receiving a torrent of abuse. This was the inevitable result of people flocking to the cinema expecting to see something ‘gorgeous’ ‘incredible’ and ‘magical’. If the film fell short of this magic, then viewers apparently felt used and abused.
But anyway, this isn’t a rant about how La La Land should be everyone’s favourite film by law. I get that not everyone is into sing-songy musical movies, Not everyone is obsessed with LA, and, as the movie regularly likes to point out, not that many people actually like jazz.
However. The critics who did really bother me were those dismissing La La Land for being just about rich, white people achieving their dreams. They said it was just the same old Hollywood story — a story of the American dream achieved by the already-privileged. They called it silly, overly romantic, and ridiculous. All in all, overhyped and unimportant.
Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely agree we need more popular movies about non-privileged non-white people.
But I really do think that La La Land has an important (and dare I say universal) message.
And I think that these damning critics missed something crucial.
Because La La Land is far from the stereotypical ode to the American dream.
La La Land has a really sad ending.
It’s a story about discontent and frustration. It’s a story about the human condition.
So I want to tell you about the movie I watched, when I went to see La La Land.
We begin with a wonderful love story that develops from a few ‘meet-cutes’. This is the classic path to happiness. , right? To fall in love. Queue music. Sunset. Etc…
But, in La La Land, both characters have already individually decided what would make them happy.
Mia wants to be a successful actor. Sebastian wants to be a jazz pianist and open a jazz bar.
Now these ambitions are initially hugely in tune with their love story.
Sebastian encourages Mia to write a play, and pursue her dream instead of waiting for some miraculous audition success. Mia falls in love with jazz music, and becomes enamoured with Sebastian’s vision of starting a club.
Their dreams and their love weave magically together. It’s the ideal life — fate has brought them and their goals into a mutual harmony..
But at its heart, this story is about discontentment.
It’s about the insatiable human desire — need– for something more, something we don’t already possess.
La La Land slowly reveals itself as a fundamental critique of the very Hollywood/American Dream that people accused the film of promoting!
Let me explain.
Act 1 is upbeat, but not idyllic: the two have love, but fail to achieve their ambitions.
We get to Act 2 and things go downhill.
Sebastian makes a breakthrough, but it’s playing music that he doesn’t like, and he’s too busy touring to pay proper attention to Mia’s play. Mia meanwhile, is being continually turned down as no one thinks she’s any good.
So now, not only are they not achieving their ambitions, they are also falling out of love.
So here comes Act3. We now get the inverse of Act 1.
No to love. Yes to ambitions.
Mia’s acting career shot up — she’s now a huge success. Seb has succeeded too, he’s got his club. But, in order to get there, they have had to break up with each other.
I can see why it’s easy for people to say, ok then, boring film — they’ve got what they always wanted — the usual — credits roll — well done folks — pick up your popcorn on the way out.
But the last scene of the film is sad.
Mia’s sitting alongside her new husband, in Seb’s jazz club, watching Seb play piano. And she’s overwhelmed with what could have been. We get a stunning fantasy flashback.
In a 2013 copy of the script that montage is described as the following:
‘We FLIT through an alternative version of all that happened between Mia and Sebastian, with every detour avoided — as though we were seeing the true old Hollywood musical rendition of their romance, the romance as it never quite was.’
This is where we see the version of events where everything turns out for the best. They get their dreams, and each other. The fire stays burning.
Unfortunately, La La Land is instead a story of serious discontentment, about the imperfectability of life…
Even in the most magical beautiful lives of the most privileged people on earth there’s an almost overwhelming sadness. A sadness about the lives that can never be, about all the narratives that we dream of but never quite achieve.
Mia and Seb have what they most deeply dreamed of, , but they still can’t help looking back into the blissful non-existent past where their love story worked out. A different love story than Mia’s marriage. One where they achieved their dreams and stayed together.
And you can’t help but feel sorry for her, and for Seb, and you can’t help but feel sorry for Mia’s new husband who’s sitting there totally unaware of all this…
If you’re an optimist this film is about how people get what they want — even when they don’t get what they want.
But for me: it’s about how people don’t get what they want — even when they get what they want.
And this is especially true for people like Mia and Seb, who are true romantics at heart — caught up in the glamour of Hollywood. They are people who will just keep on wanting and craving an impossible life — and they will keep on seeing a million perfect golden narratives being smashed into pieces with every turn of fate — with every twist, complication and inconvenience of real life.
And I think that’s a universal message. It’s a powerful message. In some ways it’s taking advantage of the very fact that Mia and Seb are hugely lucky and successful in order to comment on normal lives. ’Cause if these two can be victims of heart-wrenching discontentment — what hope is there for the rest of us?