La La Land tends to incite strong opinions in people. Akin to the spread Marmite, there’s a wide mix of people who love it or despise it. I, for sure, fall quite securely in the former category, as being a musical loving hopeless romantic with a Hollywood obsession, the film feels explicitly crafted for me. And well crafted it is, as the technical aspects of the movie are incredible. The performances, the music, the cinematography and the way they all converge is magnificent – a particular highlight of mine is the long take dance sequence at the house during ‘Someone In The Crowd‘ – each revisit to the film is a delight for me.
However, upon release I heard a fair few criticisms from friends and people on social media about the point, the message, of the film. What is La La Land trying to convey to its audience? It took a few viewings for me to unpack what my thoughts on the answers to that question, and yet even then I find it difficult to articulate them. So, mostly for my benefit, I shall attempt answer this question. Or get as close to an answer as possible.
Jazz is something that you should come to expect in a Damien Chazelle film. A filmmaker first, jazz drummer close second, all three of his current feature films have used jazz as central to the narrative and the characters, or at least part of it. His debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), stars Jason Palmer as a jazz trumpeter. In 2014, Whiplash had Miles Teller in the lead as a jazz drummer. Now, in this film, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist with an active interest in saving the ‘dying’ music genre. Jazz dominates his entire life, with his house cluttered with old memorabilia looted from a former jazz club. During Sebstian’s initial few meetings with Emma Stone’s Mia, one of which takes place during a live jazz band performance, the death of jazz is highlighted and broadcast. Here is the issue, it needs to be fixed.
This is almost a false play by Chazelle, as Sebastian and Mia’s arcs are only tenuously linked to saving jazz as a genre. Mia essentially goes from not caring for jazz to liking it because of Sebastian, and Sebastian makes no attempt to save what he loves, instead compromising its authenticity and history as part of a band until he settles with just opening his own jazz club. So, if the salvation of jazz is what Chazelle was trying to promote, then he failed, and I am glad he did. He is clearly aware of the context behind jazz music, being largely born from African-American communities in New Orleans, as he has Sebastian explain it to Mia in one of the earlier scenes. Sure, there are plenty of black and POC extras, but at the end of the day, the two leads are white and having them as the champions for jazz in this film would be the epitome of privilege and cultural appropriation.
“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like its a dirty word?” – This line comes from Sebastian early on in the film, and it aptly applies to not only La La Land, but the film industry as a whole. Many films, particularly the blockbuster studio movies, are so afraid of sincerity and cliché that it is often undercut by either humour or some other form of distraction. Why do you think rom-com is the most popular sub-genre of romance? La La Land simultaneously promotes and deconstructs the sincere romanticisms of older movies, which is largely why the classic Hollywood homages work very well as a stylist choice; the blend of modern and classic styles mirrors the thematic blend of romantic versus realistic. Sebastian and Mia both struggle with how they’ve romanticised the Los Angeles lifestyle – yet both end up living romantic lives by the end.
Romance isn’t just looking at the world through tinted lenses, it’s also intrinsically linked to the big L word: Lesbi – I mean love. Love. Naturally, this is explored through the relationship of Mia and Sebastian, the two leads of the film. Their relationship is a break from convention, their romance does not even start romantically (ha!) as Sebastian is rude to Mia on two separate occasions before they even have a conversation. Sparks don’t fly instantly, it’s through conversation and spending time together that they realise that they want to be together. No heat, no passion, just companionship. When they break up at the end, it’s not a heartache for the audience, even though their relationship is central to both their stories. The love they say they will ‘always’ share is synonymous with support rather than desire, so the true heartbreak is earlier in the film, when they are not supporting each other in their respective careers.
Both Mia and Sebastian are attempting to realise their dreams from their very first scenes in this film, and even the opening number, ‘Another Day Of Sun‘ highlights this as a core theme. “Climb these hills / I’m reaching for the heights / And chasing all the lights that shine” – a lyric that describes not only the journey of the protagonists, but the journeys of many aspiring hopefuls that enter Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a star. Sebastian wishes to open his own jazz club and Mia wishes to act professionally. Over the course of the movie, the former changes his dream for an easier one and pretends to be satisfied with it, while the latter completely gives up after repeated failures and returns home. By the end, both dreams are realised and they are happy, or at least content with their lives.
This idea of achieving your dreams seems like its a perpetuation of the “anyone can make it” idealism that seeps through all creative industries, however below the surface there’s a message that to achieve your dreams, you’ve got to put in the work. Seb’s dream is difficult, as he wants to celebrate a music genre that he himself deems as ‘dying’, however when he chooses an easy dream instead, he is not happy with it. Mia gets frustrated with how none of her auditions are bearing any fruit, yet when she writes and puts on her own play and works to express herself, she lands an audition and then a role that would become her big break. The work that they put in to achieve their dreams, the uncompromising drive, that is what leads them to their happiness.
Does a movie have to have something to say? No, not necessarily. The Transformers franchise carries no message aside from generic heroism and an insight to Michael Bay’s twisted mind. But, I think that great movies should. To me, La La Land is a great movie, and its message is a caution against compromise. When Sebastian and Mia compromise on their dreams, on their relationship, there are negative repercussions to their happiness. The extended epilogue highlights this – had Sebastian and Mia remained together, he would have sacrificed his dream for hers and never achieved true happiness and fulfullment. Jazz is just a narrative tool in this case – Sebastian could have any obsession and the narrative would still play mostly the same. Not all compromise is presented as bad however – the debate Seb and Mia have over the name of his club is settled with Mia’s idea of “Seb’s” trumping his dream name of “Chicken on a Stick”. Sebastian’s dream is still achieved, just not in the exact way that he imagined.
Don’t be afraid to adapt your dreams, but never compromise on your happiness.
P.S. – Hopefully this wasn’t too much of a mess and there’s something comprehensible that comes out of it. I’m aiming to write a lot more frequently, focusing on those movies that hold a special place in my heart. Feel free to leave me any recommendations.