I didn’t watch La La Land in the cinema because I was under the impression that it was a flouncy musical rom-com. I thought that as a manly manly man who likes coffee and maths *cough* I mean beer and sports, I was better off seeing Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Batman Films Being Shit Again, But Hey, We Had A Good Run.
I was very, very wrong. La La Land certainly has some elements of flounce, some elements of romantic comedy, and lots of wonderful music. But I am not so sure that any of these fit as descriptors. Ryan Gosling doesn’t even take his shirt off, and it’s not like Emma Stone couldn’t play that scene perfectly. It doesn’t seem quite like a rom-com, and it doesn’t seem quite like a musical, either. I think that really it is a love story, to which the comedy adds and the music adds, but neither defines. Just how relatively good is it in this - apparently far more profound - category? Having covered the mandatory spoiler alerts – and even if you have seen it, I warn you I may still spoil it – let’s find out …
There is a spectrum of respectable attitudes on the merits of musicals. The extremes of the spectrum may be thought of as either that musicals are perfectly natural combinations of the media of drama and song and are no different in essence to opera, or that precisely because opera is thematically consistent, the breaking into song in musicals in supposedly dramatic situations is unnatural and ridiculous. On which precise note, La La Land throws its musicality right in your face beginning about five seconds into the film. A girl whimsically reminisces (and sneakily foreshadows),
I think about that day / I left him at a Greyhound station West of Santa Fe / We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true / Still I did what I had to do
And yet no matter what position one takes in general, I would make the case that I do not believe La La Land is really a musical at all. It is not a musical in the way that My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music are not really musicals. The blending of media occurs to such a well-executed degree that exceeds the simple juxtaposition of music and drama and somehow welds them, improving both. La La Land is literature with a soundtrack. It is magical realism on film.
A scour of the Internet seems to show that there are two main interpretations of the film, and in particular the final montage. The first is that the film is about how Mia and Sebastian fall in love and then ruin their relationship by too blindly and eagerly following their passions. The montage shows what could have been for Mia and Sebastian, had nothing gone wrong the way it did. The second is that the film is a satire of the cultural impact of Hollywood. The montage is how Mia and Sebastian’s relationship would have unfolded in a classic Hollywood tale, replete with every film cliché around from the plane-on-the-globe-exposition to home video of painting the walls, despite being unrealistic and at times completely nonsensical. In reality it was precisely their need to follow their passions that meant they couldn’t be together. Their brief relationship served to push both towards their goals, but it was never going to work.
These interpretations cannot both be correct. On one level the second says that the people who believe the first are precisely the object of satire. (Happily ever after? Another day of sun? Ha! Idiots! Idiots who watch too many movies!) As I think there are strands of accuracy to both, it is for this reason that my interpretation lies somewhere in between.
The satire of the cultural impact of Hollywood is undeniable and brutal. From the coffee drinkers gawking at the movie star, to Mia’s series of increasingly ridiculous auditions, to the intolerable screenwriter who “has a gift for world building”, to Sebastian yearning for a simpler, purer age, to everybody driving a Prius, to Mia referencing famous old films she hasn’t seen, and on and on and on.
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine / It called me to be on that screen / And live inside each scene
The audience’s own Hollywood-induced expectations are gleefully mocked as the budding relationship of Mia and Sebastian is thrown into every catalytic trope around only for nothing to come of any of them. Will they meet at the party? Will they meet in the bar? Will they bond over his artistic gift? Will they kiss in the hallway? Will they kiss at the car door? Will they kiss in the cinema? Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Bet you feel stupid now, huh? They’ll probably both just die soon. They will be run over by a film dolly, or maybe the ‘H’ will fall off the Hollywood sign and crush them.
But I don’t think the meta-trope of screwing with the audience can explain the whole film. Adherents point to the beginning of ‘A Lovely Night’ in which Sebastian and Mia trade sarcastic barbs about not being suited for each other. But I think that too much tangible romance develops to be brushed off so blithely. I think the barbs are precisely that: sarcastic. (Jeez, it’s called flirting, you should try it some time)
I think the crucial exchange comes when Sebastian takes Mia to the Jazz bar. Mia claims that jazz is boring, to be played in the background at cocktail parties, but Sebastian explains that it is vibrant and chaotic and requires compromise and improvisation. This conversation - a brilliant metaphor for the entire film - may be used by the adherents of theory two to demonstrate the difference between theirs and theory one. In Hollywood romances, you know exactly what is going to happen and you don’t really need to pay attention. You can have it on the background. In this film, and in real life, you have to compromise and improvise and it might not all work out if you don’t follow closely.
But do we ever hear any music in the film which doesn’t work out? Is Sebastian’s point not that if the players are good enough, and they love their subject enough, that it might be rocky, but it should work out? “It’s new every time,” he says, “it’s brand new every night, and it’s very, very exciting.” Then the song ends, and the two of them applaud, because even though there was conflict and compromise, in the end it works. I think that Sebastian and Mia should have worked, and that what La La Land is about is why they didn’t.
Sebastian and Mia are both passionate about their art. And yet there are large portions of the film in which they are engaged in art they surely find beneath them. Why do they do this? I think they do this because they care too much about what they think is expected of them and what the right thing to do would be. It’s not that they don’t care about their own desires, but rather that they are so confused by their environment as to not realize what they really want.
Mia goes to a party with her friends not because any of them want to go, but because they might be spotted by just the right someone in the crowd. Sebastian plays jingle bells because he knows he will be fired if he doesn’t. He gets fired anyway, but his conflicted emotional state up to this moment both attracts Mia in the first place and ensures they don’t actually meet. (It began with the sound of a tinny piano playing in a parlor downstairs. The boss wore grey, Mia wore blue) Nor is Sebastian in the mood to receive her advances at the party because he feels ashamed at the music he is playing. Mia’s job as an actress, particularly auditioning for terrible roles, is the embodiment of being something for somebody else that you don’t want to be yourself.
They consistently miss each other during the first act not because the audience is being screwed with, but because neither has the right attitude. But Sebastian finally breaks with the expectations of others, evading security at the Warner Brothers lot to see Mia again, literally hiding to further avoid them. (is there any other point in this film when somebody wants to hide rather than be found?) And from this point they both start to let go of what others expect of them. They focus on what matters to them, they open up to each other – to anybody – for the first time, and they fall in love.
Someday as I sing my song / A small town kid’ll come along / That’ll be the thing to push him on and go go
Two episodes mark this transition: when it starts and when it is at its peak. Firstly, Mia is at dinner with her boyfriend, his insufferable brother, and his insufferable brother’s insufferable wife, when she realizes that she really wants to be with Sebastian. But she doesn’t do what is expected of her – stay at the dinner and opine on Chinese fiscal policy – she does something that would be thought by others to be completely and utterly wrong. With no explanation she gets up and leaves. And it makes her the happiest we ever see her.
The height of this happiness occurs when the two wander through the studio lot during a live production. This is the epitome of pretending to be something for others and of the cultural pull of Hollywood, and Mia and Sebastian are ambivalent. They ignore the presumably famous actors and instead talk about what has always mattered most to them. And of course, they drive each other towards their artistic passions. Mia starts writing her play, and Sebastian starts playing the music he loves.
But the audience cannot be completely unscrewed with, and this bliss cannot last indefinitely. The problems caused by doing what you think others want from you and not what you want yourself begin to creep back in. First, Sebastian overhears Mia’s mother worrying about his income and he decides to join the band he initially avoided. This leads to Sebastian touring more often than Mia initially understood, and to the fateful dinner which is tellingly brought to an end by an alarm.
As the discussion descends, there is still hope, but it is fading. Sebastian points out that Mia could easily rehearse her play – now secured a venue and an opening night – on tour with him, but Mia objects for reasons that make very little sense, and amount to little more than it being wrong for her to be away so close to the performance; in other words, people expect her to be in LA.. Following the fight, Sebastian chooses to stay for the photo shoot, which the band wants but he himself does not, and misses Mia’s debut.
It seems over at this point. And yet Sebastian and Mia dip in and out of doing what they think others want and what they really want themselves in such a tragically balanced way as to drive each other forward, but the two of them apart. The actors from the studio lot pretended to love each other, but as soon as the camera turns off, they started shouting. Mia and Seb are in love in private but cannot work when in the spotlight of other’s expectations.
Sebastian pushes Mia repeatedly to take the audition for the role in Paris, to which she finally acquiesces. When she arrives, she discovers that there is no script. She is allowed, for apparently the first time ever, to do what she wants and to tell her own story. She is allowed to be herself. But Sebastian ends up using this success, more a direct consequence of his love for Mia than Mia’s own resolve, as a reason to effectively end their relationship. Just as there was no good reason for Mia not to tour with Sebastian, there is no good reason for Sebastian not to go to Paris with Mia. He says himself that the Jazz in Paris is great, but he has to stay, to “get his own thing going here.” He sticks his neck out for no one.
“Where are we?” Mia asks, knowing they should be in the same place. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” Sebastian may as well say, knowing he may never see her again. Their time apart passes, and we jump forward five years. As a final kick in the audience’s collective nuts, we are given five or so seconds to think that Mia’s husband might be a rich banker asshole before slowly starting to discover that he seems like a pretty swell guy. It’s a shame he never gets to meet Sebastian; it could have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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
But the story ended on the bench in the park. The rest was a kind of masterful literary epilogue to what I think is one of the best films ever made; a love letter to Casablanca, and which may even be better than its legendary inspiration …
Film technology has come a long way since 1942, and whilst we shouldn’t set the bar unfairly high for Casablanca, neither should we set it unfairly low for La La Land. Casablanca is a well-produced stage play with brilliantly executed lighting and camerawork. La La Land, on the other hand, is an aesthetic masterpiece. Not only does it immediately land an unforgettable place in the canon of original film music, but it is also visually stunning. You could watch it with no sound and still be amazed – and this, remember, is a musical. It is a visual spectacle of the level reached only by the likes of Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Jurassic Park, and perhaps approached by Interstellar, The Insider, Traffic, and Out Of The Past, to list just some of this writer’s favourites. But it is not about fantasy creatures, nor is it about life, death, and dangerous intrigue. It is about two people falling in love.
But the palate and the tempo flatter to deceive. The flashes of colour and outbursts of song seem like they could hardly be further from the brooding wartime noir of Casablanca. And yet in what the characters make of their circumstances, Casablanca is a triumph, La La Land a tragedy.
Rick may be deeply cynical, but it gives him the calmness and rationality to do the right thing. He ignores his impulses and saves the lives of the woman he loves, and the man she loves over him. Sebastian and Mia are too overcome with conflicting passions to realize what they really want, and it drives them apart at the crucial moment. Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, but Sebastian and Mia would never get Paris at all. And then, five years later, of all the jazz joints in all the towns in all the world, Mia walks into Seb’s …