Spoiler Alert: This post contains plot spoilers for La La Land.
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land rode early buzz from the festival circuit and has now emerged as one of the contenders for Oscar’s Best Picture. Much has been inked so far about the film’s charm and its “follow your dreams” theme. I can agree with that assessment, but I think La La Land is a more sober, ambiguous film (even before the end) than everyone is giving it credit for.
Because of its position at one of the film’s climactic moments, Emma Stone’s rendition of “Audition (The One’s Who Dream)” is undeniably the film’s crown jewel. Go back, though, and it’s telling how many of the film’s key ideas are introduced in the rousing opener, “Another Day of Sun.”
It’s been my contention that the film celebrates artists not because they put themselves (or their careers) before other considerations but because they do the hard work of creating beauty and joy out of a world that gives them very little of these qualities to work with.
On first viewing, “Another Day of Sun” comes off as a clever joke. It is, after all, the joyful celebration of a traffic jam. It’s a song about imagined future happiness that ends with a segue to the frustrating, immediate present moment. Unhappy residents are confronted with the mundane daily reality that has replaced the Shangri-La of movies they expected.
What’s evident from the lyrics — and the movie that follows — is that they are well aware of this contrast. They have chosen it for the opportunity to make art, and their dance is a small-scale symbol of what they want to do on a larger scale. They want to transform pain and suffering into something inspiring, even at a personal cost. Perhaps the most telling, overlooked line in “Audition” is “She lived in her liquor.” Mia is either misrepresenting her aunt’s story to make it more dramatic or transforming something hard and difficult into something more romantic.
The lyrics for “Another Day of Sun” tell the story we are about to see in miniature. Small town boy and girl who “could be brave or just insane” (even the title of the film is ambiguous), inspired by movies, come to the land where dreams are made. The reality they find is one of a city where the lights “let you down,” you work in bars waiting for your break, and you face a lot of rejection. Yes, there is personal aspiration here, but the primary motivation is to be an inspiration to another small town kid.
There’s a lot of pain in La La Land. That is true of many great comedies or musicals. Because the artists are so adept at motivating themselves to keep getting up, keep trying, keep creating, we can be fooled into thinking that this is a fairy-tale land where dreams are assured and only a little pluck is what is needed.
This is a shot of the ceiling of Mia’s bedroom. She and Sebastian have just awoke (or finished love making), and Mia gets a call, which Sebastian overhears. Mia is facing skepticism about her one-woman play. She answers questions about Sebastian’s dream of owning a Jazz club. It is clear that the person on the other end of the phone is telling Mia (for the umpteenth time) that these dreams are futile and will never, ever be realized.
Here again we see the juxtaposition of the lofty dreams of Hollywood with the prosaic, unromantic reality. Surely part of what draws Mia and Sebastian to one another is not the unique quality of their dreams but the fact that so few people in their lives offer support for those dreams. Interestingly, immediately after this scene, Sebastian takes up his friend’s offer to play keys in a band, an offer that turns out to be commercially advantageous but contrary to his deeper, spiritual (I don’t think that’s too inflated a word) aspirations.
One might complain, I suppose, that this shot is a device. Like Mia’s job as a barista, we get just momentary glimpses of it. The regularity of it, the constancy of financial pressures, is elided. Maybe. As I posted this picture, I couldn’t help but think of a shot of Mia lying on her bed earlier in the film. She is smiling, and I couldn’t help wonder if she wasn’t looking at this stain or whether she had simply trained herself to not let it get her down.
On one level, La La Land is about people who ultimately choose career over relationship. Just as Mia is constantly confronted with people who have (or are getting) what she longs for — remember the actress who comes into the coffee shop towards the beginning — so too is Sebastian seemingly confronted with those who have positive, loving relationships. This shot is from a wedding as Sebastian plays the piano. Recall as well the interlude with the African-American couple on the pier as Sebastian is singing. The film’s fantasy daydream is hardly the first time Sebastian has contemplated an alternate story line where love sustains him longer and better than does keeping Jazz alive for another generation.
Did I want Mia and Sebastian to end up together? Of course I did. In our fantasy stories, it’s natural to crave happy endings. But I think there is something noble (and, again, I don’t think that too inflated) about the way they split. The last act is more or less a subversion of romantic movie tropes. They break up and Sebastian helps her not to get her back but because he loves her. It’s not even really clear that he wants her back. The end suggests on some levels he wishes they could have had a mutually supportive and loving relationship, but it also suggests that he knows this would have had to entail a fundamental rewrite of their story and not simply a different decision at a key point.
Here’s something foolish and crazy and maybe even a bit scary. Perhaps La La Land isn’t about two people who are too selfish. Perhaps it is really about the costs of trying to make others happy. In personal relationships that can mean doing what is best for the other person, even if it is hard on you. For artists, that often means sacrificing personal considerations for the greater good. My one qualm with this film is that, like Whiplash, it presumes rather than evidences that it is impossible to have both artistic greatness and personal happiness. That said, I hardly fault the film for the empathetic, compassionate portrait of those who choose the pursuit of the former over the pursuit of the latter.