I used to not enjoy watching movies that were musicals—the unreality of everyone in town bursting out of doors, grabbing props, knowing all the words and having the same choreographed movements to a song. I felt this way in Mamma Mia. Also, the plots of these musicals seem to be paper thin, inferior to the song and dance numbers. Maybe my tastes have changed, or I’ve gotten better at suspension of disbelief, or this movie integrated plot and song better because I really enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It was one of the most whimsical and magical movies I’ve seen. (warning: spoilers ahead)
From the opening scene of traffic gridlock on an LA freeway where drivers come out of their cars singing the same cheerful song (“Another Day of Sun”) and dancing on their hoods and trunks, it sets the tone that yes, this is going to be a musical, there is going to be singing, and there are going to be scenes that would never happen in real life. I went along with it. Thankfully the plot still held up without the songs, of which there actually weren’t that many.
This movie is significantly set in LA where young dreamers go to chase their dream. This might show my ignorance but until looking up “la la land” in the Oxford American Dictionary, I didn’t realize its origin is actually a reduplication of LA and refers to “Los Angeles or Hollywood, especially with regard to the lifestyle and attitudes of those living there or associated with it, i.e. a fanciful state or dreamworld.” True enough.
Gosling plays Sebastien or Seb, a 30-something jazz pianist afraid that classical jazz is going to die and dreams of opening his own jazz club where he can play all the free jazz he wants to and not get fired over deviating from a stilted Christmas set list that happens when we meet him at the beginning of the film.
Stone plays Mia, a barista who goes from audition to audition, trying to catch her big break and become an actress. She is not having much luck though. She reluctantly goes along to parties with her roommates in the hopes of meeting someone who can help her out, since it’s implied that it’s all who you know.
In this La La Land where characters are living in their fantasy more than their reality, Mia and Sebastien keep running into each other, including at one of these parties, and you know how it goes from there. I went into this movie excited to see the extremely talented and likeable pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after their evident chemistry in Crazy, Stupid Love , and they were fantastic. It didn’t matter that their singing wasn’t flawless, though it was definitely adequate. It had a rawness to it that made it more genuine and endearing.
Their love story plays out against the backdrop of them pursuing their work dreams and all the ups and downs along the way. One of these “downs” is Sebastien joining a pop-jazz group called The Messengers so he can have a steady gig even though Mia thinks he’s selling out to do so. Tired of vacuous auditions, Mia writes and performs her own play to a very small audience that her own boyfriend failed to make it to due to a commitment with his band. Many other reviewers have picked up on this as well but it struck me immediately after watching the movie that we see all these scenes of Sebastien playing the kind of jazz that makes him come alive, but we never see Mia acting in her play that makes her come alive. Although he reads her script and tells her it’s amazing, Sebastien never once sees Mia act. As this Vox article states, the movie does care more for Sebastien’s character. Ultimately, Mia does get an audition which she nails in what is the most heart-wrenching and gutsiest song (“Here’s to the hearts that ache, / Here’s to the mess we make”), but it lands her a role in Paris and their long-distance relationship doesn’t work out or was never attempted. Before she leaves, they say to each other, “I’ll always keep loving you.”
The movie ends five years later where Mia is an A-list actress, happily coming home to a daughter and a husband who is not Sebastien. Her and her husband go out to dinner and step into a jazz club called Seb’s where they see the man himself and he sees her. When he sits down to the keys, he plays his and Mia’s theme song, a melancholic waltz more than jazz. Mia’s mind goes down memory lane in one of the loveliest montages of the film where she imagines every scene—how things were supposed to be, who they were supposed to be with. It’s very bittersweet. Mia and Seb look at each other from across the room before she leaves, and there is a small smile on both their faces, proud of what the other has become, but also pained that they did it apart and that road is closed off to them now.
I read that this ending is divisive and some people really don’t like it. I do, though I will admit that the trailer and sunny opening sequence don’t set you up for this “shadow side.” It defied the predictable ending I was expecting from a movie classified as a musical romantic comedy, and it also seemed a more realistic commentary on La La Land: maybe you can’t have it all.