SPOILER WARNING: La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)
La La Land is nothing if not a feel-good movie. At first glance, this fact and feature of the film may be a turn-off for many who are looking for a film that will make them think and not just tell them that everything will be alright no matter what, as many “feel-good” movies tend to do. But where La La Land differs from this formula is that while it may indeed make its audience feel good in the end, it provokes them to think about just why they are feeling that way. And for some, the conclusion of the film may not be feel-good at all, and instead may classify itself to them as something of an unhappy ending. This is the beauty of La La Land and its uncanny ability to present real life as an imperfect place while at the same time allowing its audience to be comfortable and happy in it if they so choose.
When La La Land concludes Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian are not together. But while this is the ending for many films with a romantic couple as the stars, La La Land makes it clear that these two will never be together. This is actually the message of the entire film, which only becomes perfectly, and maybe even painfully, clear in the final moments of the film’s runtime. Even though Mia and Sebastian tell each other that they will love each other forever, this is all they will do. As life continues they both become aware that their paths are very different and they do not run together. This is clear throughout the film, no matter how much the leads or the audience may fight it. Sebastian is perpetually pushing Mia forward. From their first encounter which involves him relentlessly honking to provoke Mia to start driving, to his endless encouragement for her to follow her dreams of acting, even to the point where she is no longer comfortable with her own performances, Sebastian is always pushing her. This is not to say that Mia is completely helpless, as she takes many steps completely on her own, but it is always Sebastian that wants her to take one more step forward.
But even as Mia moves ahead, Sebastian is rooted in the present, or even in the past. A jazz aficionado, Sebastian is dedicated to reviving a dying genre, but at the same time he does not wish to alter it in any way to do so. Even when he gets a “steady job” in a band that is attempting to revive jazz, Sebastian is not happy, partly because of the alterations that are being made to his passion. For him, the end goal is a club where the legends of jazz will be revered and the music will be played and celebrated. And in the end, Sebastian’s dream comes true, as does Mia’s. Not only is she a successful actress riding around the Warner Brothers’ lot on a golf cart, but also she lives in a mansion with a partner and a child. These successes and dreams are not intertwined though, aside from Mia and her partner accidentally stumbling across Sebastian’s club.
This is the beauty of the “feel-goodness” of the ending of La La Land. Everyone gets what they want, separately, but are they happy. Indeed, as Mia watches Sebastian play the piano for the last time she envisions her life had things been different between them. Mia sees their life if their relationship had been perfect, and though this life becomes the one that Mia has always wanted, her as a successful actress with Sebastian and a child, Sebastian’s dream is nowhere to be seen. Mia realizes this, and so she chooses to leave the club, and any possibility of her life with her old flame. The two of them can be happy, they could be happy together, but they cannot achieve their dreams together.
For a musical to end in this way is indeed unique. Musicals are most often associated with the bending of reality; they exist in worlds where anything is possible and in many cases love conquers all. But La La Land is not a Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932) or The Pirate (Vincent Minnelli, 1948), and instead it chooses to be more in line with Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) or Pennies From Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1981). These are not perfect examples by any means; especially considering that death is not the separator that keeps Mia and Sebastian from being together. For a non-musical example, Casablanca (Michael Cutiz, 1942) fits in well. This is not to say that Sebastian has such a morally divisive decision in front of him in regards to his love interest as Rick Blaine does, but both men are similar in that they decide that their personal stake in their respective relationships are less important than that of the other person. And while Rick’s decision is mostly one-sided, La La Land is much more progressive in that both members of the relationship, Mia and Sebastian, make a mutual decision about their shared future.
A more modern example of this is (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009). La La Land and this film both examine a mutual relationship between two people who simply grow apart. And while Mia and Sebastian are still of good terms at the conclusion of their relationship, they can be compared to Tom and Summer of the film that bears the latter character’s name. Tom and Summer may have loved each other at one point and while their relationship is certainly a mutual and happy one, the film highlights how two people who work well together can simply grow apart to the point that they are no longer the best thing for each other. La La Land demonstrates this throughout its runtime. Mia and Sebastian, try as they might, are never completely on the same page. They are always chasing each other, with either Sebastian trying to convince Mia to love jazz like he does or Mia working to launch her acting career with the hope that Sebastian will be there for her. But in the end, neither of them can fully support the other, and they must make the best decision for themselves as individuals, not as a couple. And that decision is that they should pursue their dreams and if their relationship must be sacrificed for it then it is a necessary sacrifice.
Ultimately, La La Land is a feel-good movie, but it is not one that may make the viewer feel good immediately. One can hope against hope that Mia and Sebastian will somehow get together in the end, but as Mia’s dream sequence demonstrates, they cannot be together and both still achieve their individual dreams. The film asks the viewer to question their own presumptions and values when it comes to relationships that may be getting more in the way of those involved than anything else. And while Mia would have never achieved her goal of becoming an actress were it not for Sebastian’s interference, this does not mean anything more than that the relationship was beneficial in some way. Neither of the characters regret their involvement with each other and they both say that they will always love each other, and so their relationship is a beneficial event, but this does not mean it will be preserved against the march of their lives. Everyone is happy in the end, and La La Land dares to say that its leads do not need each other to be in that condition.