This is not a review of this movie — my review is much shorter: “Go see it.” When you’re done, come back here and read this, and maybe join the discussion. Spoilers ahead — you’ve been warned.
As I sat in the darkened theater holding my wife’s hand, listening to the quiet notes of La La Land’s quiet epilogue (if you leave early you’re not getting your money’s worth, folks!), one question kept running through my mind: why did this movie leave such an impact on me?
In one sense there’s a really easy answer to that. After an exhausting 2016, who wouldn’t want to see LA drivers spontaneously leap from their cars and dance a musical number together? La La Land is full of delightful music, boasts two very well-acted leads, and is a pleasant, hopeful, story. It’s easy to see why so many people have loved it. However, it also tells its story with a little more nuance than we usually expect. After the credits finished, the TVs in the halls came on, and as we walked out I saw scenes from Rogue One go flashing by (which, let me say, is a fine movie in its own right). It felt like a video game.
Without being flashy, the intimate lens of La La Land felt more immediate than a half-dozen action movies showing in the rooms around us. It’s this grounded quality that drew me to La La Land. Who can’t relate with the coming-of-age struggle between the real world and, for lack of a better word, la-la land. I’ve asked the questions that Seb and Mia asked before — we all have, to some extent.
You could say that this film is the latest retelling of that old adage: ‘follow your dreams.’ After all, Mia and Sebastian ultimately conclude that their dreams — a successful acting career, and a popular jazz bar — are more important to them than each other. Still, each one could not have been pushed into their happy ending without the chance encounter: for that they will always remember each other.
This wasn’t the ending we expected. As I sat in my theater seat, I started talking to the movie. “Ah, this is the point where you will reveal that they’re not right for each other, there will be a big blowup, and we learn that you can’t have it all after all.” I was too cynical: the movie continued, and I was proved wrong for scene after scene. By the time we reached the real climax of the movie, I was lulled into this deceit, and fully expected a sugar-sweet resolution.
But Damien Chazelle giveth, and Damien Chazelle taketh away. Just as we are fully on their team, rooting for Seb and Mia, they say goodbye. They decide that to meet their dreams, it’s really best that they are apart. Man, I was mad. Here I’d trusted this movie, and now this! We even see glimpses of a life where Seb and Mia stayed together, and were still both able to realize their dreams.
As we wind through a ‘highlight reel’ of home movie and dance features, we’re cheering for this somehow to be the real ending. But la-la land fades, and we’re left with nothing more than a significant look between Mia and Seb as she walks out of the building. It’s the truer ending, despite what we wanted, and it’s why I’m still thinking about the movie now.
La La Land tells us that sometimes, even a person you love deeply can stand in the way of your dreams. For Seb and Mia, achieving their dreams meant parting ways. And in the story, they never knew anything different — so we did get our happy ending, in a way, but not the one we expected. The message is clear: following your dreams is worth it, even when it means saying goodbye to a person you loved. Only we, the audience, saw what might have been had they chosen each other instead, only to have the whole happy montage fade back into lala land as reality takes hold.
What a different movie we would have had if the opposite had happened, though! What if La La Land had told us that loving someone is worth it, even when it means saying goodbye to a dream you cherished? Now there’s a message that we don’t hear often from Hollywood. Surely Seb would have been unhappy without his jazz bar. Surely Mia was destined to be an actress. Destiny would have no other way.
But think for a moment of a quieter ending, where the flame of marriage burns brighter than a big movie or a successful bar. La La Land had all the pieces to tell this other story. The setting, the characters, and their problems were presented vividly on a beautiful landscape. Their goodbye could have been a hello, as the observatory presided over a new chapter in their story, living and loving together.
I’m not saying that La La Land necessarily had to go this way, or even that it could have gone this way. But maybe what I’m suggesting is: isn’t it a shame that there isn’t a movie that paints that picture of a marriage? Love that deep is out there in the real world, and it stretches deeper than following your own dreams. Hollywood has given us the best medicine they know how to make: a heart-warming tale that’s all the realer because it’s tinged with bitterness. The bitterness will always be there, but the path to an enduring joy might be in the exact opposite direction that Mia and Seb followed.
So as I sit quietly in the theater, listening to the end credits, I am holding my wife’s hand. The dreams that I used to have are gathering dust in a drawer, almost forgotten. “Here’s to the ones who dream,” croons Mia. Yes, we need writers, musicians, and poets. But as for me, my dream is sitting right next to me in this theater.
I sing a different song: Here’s to the ones who know that loving another is hard, but takes you somewhere your dreams alone cannot bring you. La La Land itself is proof of the power of a good story, and we need good storytellers, but we also need good husbands and wives, good lovers and good live-ers. That’s not la-la land, that’s real life, and it’s here, right now.