WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, don’t read this.
I saw La La Land last week, and though I’m not a big fan of musicals in principle, I enjoyed the hell out of it. I had a few thoughts that I wanted to test on Guinea pigs, and since I haven’t been able to re-watch it, they might be a little faulty. Originally I wasn’t happy with the ending of La La Land, until I began thinking about it in terms of a more realist genre, instead of a romantic one.
La La Land is about achieving your dreams, and the sacrifices that might be required. The first large musical number, the opening sequence, is about leaving behind a lover to pursue dreams of stardom, foreshadowing the difficulties that Mia and Seb will have later. They meet, love burgeons, they have a grand relationship in which they push each other to pursue their dreams, and then, realising that they might not be able to make it work and pursue their dreams simultaneously, they part. When they come across each other years later, they realise that though they couldn’t be together, it was still worth it. That smile, across the bar, could hardly have been anything else, but an acknowledgement that, ‘ok, it didn’t work, but I’m still happy.’
The cleverest part for me was the way that it switched genre, like sliding through a gradient, romantic musical at one end to realist romance at the other. Musical is an inherently romantic genre. It invites the audience to engage with the views of the characters or the setting in highly unrealistic ways; songs stuffed with metaphor, massive dance numbers and stylised sets, that would seem alien in any kind of realist story. Once Seb and Mia get into their romance properly, after their montage and highly unrealistic dance at the planetarium, they begin a more mature relationship and the musical numbers fade into the background simply as music, adding another texture, but not dominating whole scenes. ‘Start A Fire’ fits realistically into the context; Mia sees Seb at a show debuting his group’s song. Mia’s audition is understated and not explosive or showy, not taking you out of reality. She’s by herself performing the story, the spotlight’s on her, all eyes on her bravura, captivating performance. At their re-meeting, the last big musical number is entirely separated from reality. It’s in an almost cartoonish style, or in the style of home-movies or old films. It’s not actually happening at all; either in Seb’s mind, or shared between the two of them, (it was kind of hard to tell). The story goes from having the enormous vivacious musical numbers as basic modus operandi to having them confined solely to the character’s imaginations. It’s a really clever way to accent the fact that they have to grow up in order to achieve the things that they’re truly passionate about. To stop thinking about their dreams in solely romantic ways and think about them in realistic ways.
I’m not sure that it’s a pertinent point but it’s a nice metaphor; the two characters have to get out of La La Land in order to begin achieving their dreams, literally and figuratively. Seb goes touring, Mia goes home. They both have to see their lives more realistically.