Why are white men so stupid? La La Land offers a very simple and solemn answer to this perennial question: We value success over love. We can have our dreams or our sweethearts but not both, and while we make sacrifices that get us to the top, we are alone once we get there.
La La Land follows two struggling artists trying to make it in Hollywood. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a passionate jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club; and Emma Stone plays Mia, who has dreamed of being an actress ever since she was a little girl. As the opening song informs the audience, when life pushes us down, we have to get up “off the ground.” Sebastian is forced to play Christmas carols and 80s hits and Mia is humiliated at one audition after another. Their love is born out of their mutual hardships and the passion they share towards achieving their dreams.
La La Land offers a rich, retelling of the old fashioned Hollywood musical, with catchy songs and luscious cinematography, with each scene alive with rich red tones and somber dark hues to set the mood for Mia and Sebastian, respectively. La La Land offers a rich escape into the world of Hollywood, alight with struggling artists trying to make it in a town full of aspiring starlets and musicians.
Sebastian and Mia are developed just enough that we see ourselves as the bruiting artist, unwilling to compromise with even himself for the sake of his music, and Mia as the hopeful starlet astride the horrible brink between despair and fame. The characters’ struggles are all very much our own, as we have dreams that seem crazy and for which we are willingly to sacrifice everything. But do we really have to sacrifice the love of the one person who encourages us to keep pushing on towards the goal?
If you remember Titanic, it was obvious from the beginning that this film would not end well. That boat is going to sink, and it will drown the star-crossed lovers in its wake. But La La Land keeps you hoping throughout the film that true love will ultimately conquer all, and that Sebastian and Mia will end the movie staring off into the sunset. The reality is, Sebastian and Mia could never be together. Once their “boat” reaches the shore, once they get their breaks, once they find fame, no longer can they be together. The climb unites them, and the summit divides them. This is emphasized all the more by the lack of music as the film reaches its sad climax. Music reflects the hope and possibility of having it all, one’s love and one’s dreams. As this grows less and less possible, the songs grow less frequent until they all but disappear from the movie.
In the film’s final musical act, we are taken back through all the things Sebastian should have done for Mia. Here, the music reflects the hope of what could have been but cannot be. These are the moments Sebastian acted particularly stupid, when he picked his career over her and how different his life would have been if he had chosen otherwise. Rather than brushing off the girl who took interest in a sad piano player, he kisses her. He abandons a self-indulgent photoshoot to attend and applaud Mia’s one-act play. He goes with Mia to Paris for her big break, sacrificing his own dream for the promise of a life with her instead. But, as the backdrops give way to the bold, brush strokes of an Impressionist painting, we know that this isn’t really happening. This is all a dream, and the characters we’ve rooted for will not live happily ever after with each other. They are happy and successful, but that success came at a price. Sebastian’s poignant head nod in the film’s final frame signals that he has accepted the sad truth before the audience does. We can have success or true love but not both, and we have to live with the consequences.