Spoilers for La La Land. Don’t read this piece until you’ve seen the film.
The cinematic musical is a medium of grand emotions and even grander visuals. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sets are larger, emotions are wild, untamed, and only suitably expressed through spontaneous song and dance. La La Land, Hollywood’s latest attempt to revive the genre, is no different. The film ends with a glorious, bittersweet sweep through unreality, and when our two lovers fall for each other, they do so while floating on air at Griffiths Observatory.
Yet the film has an organic feel that many classic Hollywood musicals don’t. While the cinematography adds a dreamy sheen to almost every scene, director Damien Chazelle shoots in real locations, lending the film a compelling tension between reality and fantasy. This tension is echoed by the script, which uses the improvisational nature of jazz as a metaphor for life and love. “It’s conflict, it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,” Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician Seb tells aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone).
As these characters progress through the film they too have to battle conflict and compromise. They love each other, but they also have very firm dreams that take them in different directions, sometimes coming into conflict with their principles, sometimes having to compromise their lives together. Mia refuses to join Seb on tour after he joins a successful band; Seb is so busy with the band that he misses Mia’s one-woman show. They eventually split, form separate lives, and in a heartbreaking finale meet each other again five years in the future, Chazelle taking us through a gloriously artificial vision of what their life could have been together.
Such sequences are common in traditional Hollywood musicals. Gene Kelly had a particular fondness, using them to dramatise a Dancing Cavalier sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and a dream sequence in An American in Paris. They’re both moments of artifice, with the false sets heightening this sense of constructed reality. La La Land‘s artifice in this epilogue sequence does the same; this isn’t a dream sequence, but it is a vision of what could have been. Seb and Mia’s life together has slipped from sight, and all they have now is an illusion of their love.
What adds extra resonance to the sequence though is how the banality of what we see clashes with the way it’s being seen. The visuals may be artificial and exuberant, but the story is one of tough, everyday choices being made in a slightly different way than they did in the story we’ve just watched. Seb never joins the band, he goes with Mia when she gets her acting gig in Paris, they get married, and have a child together. The compromises they could only make for their dreams, they now make for each other and so they end up together.
Few of us will ever have to decide whether to join a band or take an acting job in Paris, but we make similar decisions all the time. Do we take that job that means a two hour commute and less time with the family? Do we stay true for our dreams regardless of the security they do or don’t offer? Do we chase love or a career? By juxtaposing such everyday choices against such exotic visuals, La La Land succeeds in creating a profound melancholy. These decisions, the film says, may seem pedestrian, but ultimately they have grand consequences, deciding who we are, what we become, and whether or not we end up dancing in thin air with the love of our life.