Review: La La Land

A Cautionary Tale in the City of Angels

I could probably write way too much about La La Land, so in lieu of that, I’ll try and get to the point.

This was a good movie. Not a great movie. A good one. I’d give it either an 8/10 or a 9/10, depending on where I landed after a second viewing. Gun to my temple I’d probably land somewhere in the 8 stretch, as it went on a bit too long and took a bit too long getting there. Then again, maybe it didn’t, and I was just being especially conscientious of the run time because it was eight at night on a worknight, and I was at the movies instead of getting ready for bed because a local theater has a great deal where you can see a movie for five bucks on Tuesdays.

I digress. It was a good film. Worth seeing for the music, the acting, and the snappy dialogue.

I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion about the movie on the good old Interwebs in the days that followed, and it’s impossible to discuss the merits and drawbacks of the film without first addressing something I believe people – specifically, my generation – have completely misinterpreted about the film itself. Folks, this was a depressing movie. This was not a feel good movie. It was not a bittersweet movie. It wasn’t a nostalgic movie. It was a depressing movie. I walked out of this theater feeling absolutely gutted. Here come the spoilers. If for some reason you’re reading this and you haven’t seen the film, turn back now. You’ve got my score and my big picture thoughts.

Towards the end of this film, Sebastian and Mia (our two leads, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, respectively) give up on a romantic relationship with one another so that they can pursue their careers/dreams. That’s the bad news. The good news is, they attain the dreams they so desperately wanted. Hooray. That’s the good news.

So where’s the mix up? First of all, let’s start with the nuts and bolts. I’m wary about mixing the words “career” and “dream,” because I think the film was very adamant about which was which. A career doesn’t always equal a dream, nor vice versa. We’re lucky if the two have anything to do with one another. I would argue, even further, that giving up on anything of lasting personal value in pursuit of a “career” probably isn’t something any artist would endorse. Rather, what director/writer Damien Chazelle painted in this film (and I’m going in part off a couple of interviews he gave concerning the film and his creative process) was a cautionary and honest parable about the ups and downs, the costs and benefits, of being a young artist in 2017.

Can you give up on love and achieve your dreams? Certainly. Do Sebastian and Mia do so? Yes. Is giving up on love a necessity to achieve your dreams? No. Does La La Land suggest a happy ending? Not at all, folks. Mia and Sebastian each get what they want – she becomes a movie star, getting a free coffee from her old haunt as a barista, and he opens a jazz club (which I maintain should have been named Chicken on a Stick). They get what they want. Yet even so, with their dreams in hand, upon seeing one another in the film’s denoument set in Sebastian’s low-lit jazz club, they each ache for what they lost. As Sebastian plays their “theme” on the piano, Mia has a flashback/flashforward/flashsideways to an alternate reality where she and Sebastian never broke up, and in that vision of an alternate reality, sees exactly how they could have held onto one another and attained their dreams in slightly different ways. This whole bit takes up maybe five minutes of screentime.

La La Land is not endorsing the fact that Mia and Sebastian gave one another up to achieve their dreams. It is lamenting that fact. By showing us an alternate reality where they were able to have a “variation on everything,” it clarifies its message further – that giving up one another did not have to happen. One discussion I read suggested that at the end of the film, when they smile and nod at one another, they are somehow thanking each other. Yeah, no. I’m not buying it. They smile wistfully and nod wistfully and share a piano theme wistfully because they are wistful. They are sad, because they have their dreams but not each other – and they, like the audience, see in the final minutes of the film that a dream without someone to share it with cannot be complete.

Adding insult to injury; Mia is married. She has a child. This leads me to wonder…what exactly about Sebastian would have held Mia back from success? He could have easily followed her to Paris. It would have been easier for him to build his life (he was a musician) around her burgeoning career as an actress than it would be for her husband and child to follow her. My point isn’t to say that a spouse and a child stop you from being able to do what you love. My point is to say: if Mia could find success, and get married, and have a child, why in the world could she not do those things with Sebastian?

Well, because they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready for one another. They (specifically, Sebastian) were not prepared to do what needed to be done to cultivate a relationship between two artists with conflicting goals. That they broke up isn’t my concern – narratively, it made sense. Sebastian, as a character, wasn’t mature enough to carry his half of the equation. What concerns me is the reaction to the film – that the dissolution of their relationship was somehow necessary, somehow something to be celebrated. It was and is neither. Rather, this was a tragic (and honest, and painfully common) loss.

The danger here is the logical conclusion that follows from misinterpreting this film: the idea that in order to be successful, one has to be absolutely unhindered by any sort of interpersonal commitments. Within this logical structure, nobody married will ever achieve their dreams. That’s a rather offensive (and quantifiably false) sentiment.

Equally dangerous is the supposition that breaking up with a significant other to “pursue one’s dreams” is somehow “sensible” because it will make you better as an artist – or at the very least, liberate you so that you can better serve your art.

I hate to break it to you, my friends, but if everybody who ever gave up on love became famous as a consequence…there would be a lot more famous people in the world. Additionally, there would be hardly any lonely, single artists who made their art in unrecognized solitude, leaving a trail of failed relationships behind them.

At best, this film is a well-made cautionary tale that urges young artists to pursue their dreams, but to be careful what they sacrifice to achieve them. At (misinterpreted) worst, it is a justification to put the self before love. This is dangerous, because what often seems like the best thing for the “self” at the cost of love, comes back years later as something that was never good for the “self” in the first place.

At one point, as Mia sings a song, she says “Here’s to the mess we make.” In context, the song is about an aunt who jumped in the Seine and got pneumonia as a result – but who would do it again, because of the treasured memory it afforded her. I agree with this. Sometimes, you’ve got to do the stupid thing you might regret so that you truly live. Sometimes jumping in the Seine and contracting pneumonia is worth it for the memory alone. Sometimes, making a mess of things and taking the harder road is worth it because at the end of the day, that’s what living looks like.

The great misunderstanding is that to give up on love in pursuit of our dreams is somehow the more difficult route. It’s not. Giving up on love is the easy way out.

It’s the loving – and dreaming – that’s hard.


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-A & R, Intercoastals