Let’s Talk About the Ending of ‘La La Land’

La La Land - Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land  dazzled me when I first saw it. Its deftly choreographed musical numbers had me pining for the film musicals of yesteryear. And the deeply felt performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (who play aspiring artists Sebastian and Mia) helped me find a deeper level of respect for those who give everything in pursuit of their creative dreams.

The soundtrack for La La Land was recently released, and I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past few days listening to it. But the more I listen, the more bothered I am by the film’s ending and how it seems to betray a lot of what came before it. Let’s talk about the ending of La La Land. Note that this article will contain SPOILERS for the film.

The film begins with a crowd of young people sitting in terrible LA traffic in the hot sun, as a superimposed title ironically tells us that it’s “Winter.” It looks miserable. As everyone breaks out into the song, “Another Day of Sun,” we learn the backstories behind some of these random local residents. One woman sings:

I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Sante Fe
We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cuz I just knew

Summer Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
The Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside its sheen

Without a nickel to my name
Hopped a bus, here I came
Could be brave or just insane
We’ll have to see
‘Cuz maybe in that sleepy town
He’ll sit one day, the lights are down
He’ll see my face and think of how he used to know me

Like so many others, this character was drawn to Los Angeles by the lure of fame and the magic of film and television. She left her boyfriend(?) at the time and headed off for a brutal life of breaking into show business, hoping that one day, he might see her on the big screen and realize that all her dreaming was worthwhile.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that the chances of “making it” in show business are infinitesimally small. If the dancing and singing weren’t so exuberant, this song could equally likely read as a parody of what a dreamer might sing. Yes, there’s something moving and nostalgic about what these aspiring performers are doing, but show business is not necessarily a noble profession and the fact that people are willing to suffer for it in such an unquestioning way feels more troubling to me than energizing. In any case, I felt like this song might be setting the film up to problematize these dreams (and perhaps lead the characters to understand that there’s more to life than trying to make it big?).

The next song in the film, “Someone in the Crowd,” feels similar. In it, Emma Stone and her roommates talk about heading out to a party and how meeting that perfect person might lead to a consequential moment. While the song is celebratory and fun, the subtext feels the same: Trying to make a dent in the party scene for any reason is a challenging, relentless, and taxing pursuit. Sure, it could lead to you meeting the perfect romantic partner or making a good impression on a casting director, but it left me asking: Is it worth it?

These songs reminded me of another movie musical that came out this year, Moana. In the one of the film’s opening songs, “Where You Are,” Chief Tui, Moana’s father, explains why everything they could possibly want is on their island home, and Moana should never leave. Of course, we quickly learn that the solution to the island’s problems are not on the island itself, but must be found by journeying outward.

This is a common trope in musicals: a song at the beginning sets up the status quo, and then the story that follows proceeds to topple it, problematize it, or at the very least, put some kind of twist on it.

La La Land

Notably, that’s not what happens in La La Land. Sebastian and Mia actually do meet at a party and fall in love. And towards the film’s ending, after failing at her one-woman show and all her other auditions, Mia decides to pack her bags and go home, only for one final fortunate phone call from a casting director to lead to a major movie gig. Mia and Sebastian decide to part ways and pursue their own careers.

Years later, in the film’s epilogue, we see that Mia is famous beyond her wildest imagination. She has a beautiful house, a husband and kid, and she has become the celebrity at the coffee shop that people give freebies to. A chance decision on a Los Angeles highway leads her to discover that Sebastian has achieved his dream too — opening an old-school jazz bar that appears to be quite popular.

As Sebastian sits down to perform, he recognizes Mia in the crowd. He performs the song that they once knew together (listed as “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” on the film’s soundtrack) and we see a montage not only of the wonderful moments they’ve had together, but of the life they could’ve had. He could’ve been her husbandThat could’ve been their kid. He’s conveying all his hopes, wishes, and longings about the life they could’ve had through every note that he plays.

Despite my reservations with the film, I will say this: This moment is one of my favorite movie moments in all of 2016. The way the movie expertly sets up the musical themes, then brings them all back in this 7-minute montage is incredibly moving.

But what is the message of the ending? I think there are two ways to read it.

The more charitable reading is that the film is trying to say: life has different seasons, and you have different people in your life that accompany you for those seasons. Pursuing your dreams requires sacrifice. Getting plucked out of obscurity for a life-changing opportunity means, literally, that your life will change, perhaps almost completely. You can and may lose friends, loved ones, relationships, and other things that you hold dear.

But the reading that I most gravitate towards is that the ending to La La Land vindicates all those hopelessly naive people dancing on their cars during “Another Day in the Sun.” Mia has achieved her dreams. So has Seb, for that matter. Their relationship has been lost but they’ve achieved everything in life they’ve ever wanted. And Mia seems to have a new relationship that suits her just fine!

This interpretation means that any wistfulness that you experience during La La Land is temporary. The film becomes an unabashed celebration of holding on to your convictions, no matter what the cost. This is made clear in the song that Mia sings to land her breakthrough movie role, “Audition (Here’s to the Dreamers)”:

A bit of madness is key
To give us the color to see
Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us,
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy, as they may seem

It’s a beautiful song and I love the sentiment behind it. But it is exactly the same sentiment as the first song in the whole film. Absolutely nothing about Mia’s attitude has changed, even despite some harsh setbacks (and the brutality of the custodial staff at her one-person show believing that she was terrible at this).

“Keep dreaming, despite stupefying odds,” is where the film began and ended. It’s a simple message, full of hope. It’s arguably what we need in our times. But in a film filled with songs that felt like they could easily be parodying that idea, I had hoped for something more nuanced.

What did you think of the ending to La La Land? Is my interpretation nuts? Or did it bother you too? 

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