Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. No, actually – when was the last time anyone saw the Cinemascope logo in opening credits? Since premiering in late August at the Venice Film Festival, La La Land has been receiving unparalleled praise from critics and audiences for reviving the musical genre of cinema that was popular in the sixties. While I would love to (and honestly, I probably could) write a 10,000 word love letter about every single detail that director Damien Chazelle gets right in this film, I’m instead going to turn my focus to his messaging on a certain predominant topic in La La Land: Dreams. Obviously this isn’t the movie’s most obscure theme, as the name “La La Land” refers both to the film’s setting of Los Angeles as well as the surreal arena in which our daydreams take place. The tagline is even more explicit: “Here’s to the fools who dream”. But the film’s dedication to that message goes deeper and it’s the way in which we dreamers in the audience connect with the protagonists that ultimately makes our hearts clench.
La La Land introduces us to Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), two aspiring performers who find love and inspiration in each other. Mia is an actress who has been waiting for her big break since moving to LA six years prior, when she has several chance encounters with Sebastian, a jazz pianist who is determined to keep traditional jazz alive by opening his own club. As a relationship blossoms between them, they challenge each other to chase their dreams on paths they hadn’t considered trying.
In Chazelle’s universe, any small goal could be considered a dream, because of the reality factor present in the movie. Generally when people talk about “dreamers”, they’re referring to those who have delusional goals or unattainable fantasies. Yet Mia and Sebastian take concrete steps to reach their goals throughout the film, and that makes those ambitions seem more grounded. Sebastian has a plan for his club, he knows the location, the name, and how he’s going to get to that point. While Mia’s dream of becoming an acclaimed actress has a smaller chance of coming to fruition, Sebastian’s goal is much more feasible. Thus no matter how wild or small-scale their goals are, anyone ambitious can see themselves reflected in either Mia, Sebastian, or a little bit of both.
***Spoilers Past This Point***
A big part of La La Land is Chazelle’s exploration of the notion that romantic love and dreams become intertwined. As the relationship begins to develop during the “Summer” chapter, Sebastian quickly establishes himself as a positive influence in Mia’s life, encouraging her to show Hollywood her unique personality by writing her own material, rather than trying to fit herself into the boring cookie cutter roles that she can manage to grab auditions for. At this point in the film, Sebastian is the perfect, supportive significant other. That makes Mia love him even more, and as the relationship progresses, their individual dreams morph into mutual dreams. Chazelle’s depiction of this common occurrence is incredibly familiar, and this becomes painfully realistic once Mia and Sebastian break up (following the failure of her one-woman play) and attempt to pry their dreams apart from each other, with Mia allowing hers to circle the drain. Her surrender makes Sebastian lose the fire behind his own dream, and it’s not reignited until she returns to pursuing her own. Just as Sebastian is dependent on Mia’s ambition to support him, she needs his as well. When the casting director, impressed with Mia’s show, attempts to contact her, Mia refuses to pick up the phone. It isn’t until Sebastian drives all the way to confront Mia with the casting director’s message at her parents’ home in Nevada that she returns to her calling. Sebastian goes to such lengths to persuade her to attend the audition that it’s as if both he and Mia are working simultaneously to reach her dream. This is a crucial point that Chazelle makes about love and life that we all know, but often refuse to acknowledge: once our significant other begins supporting our ambitions, we feel lost without that support and struggle to stay on track.
La La Land also makes the compelling argument that our significant other becomes a major part of our dreams. What drives that point home is the film’s ending, which sees both Mia and Sebastian’s dreams coming true at the cost of their separation. Mia has become a well-known actress, and Sebastian’s newly opened jazz club is thriving; but of course Mia has a husband and a kid. Although she’s presumably happy with her life, the look of longing and sorrow that she exchanges with Sebastian plants doubt as to whether she’s as happy as she could be. La La Land’s ending feels sad to us, because despite the fact that both Mia and Sebastian have succeeded in terms of their dreams, they aren’t together. They did so much to inspire and encourage each other, and the people who inspire us will always have a place in our hearts. Having that place filled – having that person with us when our dreams come true – is itself a dream. With the epilogue, Chazelle suggests that for Mia and Sebastian that place feels hollow, particularly when he shows us what could have been for them. Mia gets her dream of becoming an actress. Sebastian gets his dream of saving jazz with his own club. Yet they both lose the magical, fairy-tale dream of being with the person who made those dreams possible.