I was fully prepared to hate it, but—dadgum—I really liked it,” confessed the man sitting behind me to his girlfriend.
The praise came from the same guy who had grumbled his way through the opening credits of La La Land, the new musical from Damien Chazelle starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. He obviously wanted nothing to do with it.
But as the end credits rolled, he couldn’t stop talking about—gushing even—about this romantic musical. He isn’t alone either. I have yet to find a person who wasn’t star-struck by La La Land. It is superlative. (Yeah, it got me too).
Note: This review contains spoilers and plot details, but, believe me, nothing can spoil this movie.
It’s everything that made movies magic in the first place.
La La Land is the kind of magic that made Hollywood great. It is brimming with charm and romance evoking golden-age musicals like Singing in the Rain and Top Hat. It bursts onto the screen with brightly hued energy and immense musical numbers in a Los Angeles that ignores Kim Kardashian in favor of Ingrid Bergman.
The music swirls around our star-crossed leads: Mia (Stone), the small town girl with big screen dreams, and Sebastian (Gosling), an embittered restaurant pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club. These two should “never work” as a couple, but that’s par for the course. Incompatibility has always been a perquisite for a good love story in Hollywood.
It’s not the love of your dreams. It’s the love of your life.
But unlike every other Hollywood romance, La La Land does not plug and play the tired rom-com formula. Instead, it anchors its story in reality. Sebastian and Mia’s romance is much like the jazz music that permeates La La Land—spontaneous, difficult, and wonderful.
Their love is rapturous. As their love grows, their dance numbers lift them up from beautiful sunsets into the literal cosmos. Who hasn’t felt that in a new relationship? But as their relationship continues, the music fades. The long, colorful tracking shots of the couple together turn into static medium shots of the actors alone.
We notice the large water spot on Sebastian’s apartment ceiling. The perfect date night devolves into the perfect storm of an argument. La La Land doesn’t lead us to the fantasy world of perfect love but to the relatable struggle and sacrifice that love requires.
An Expensive Relationship
Chazelle’s previous film, the similarly jazz-filled Whiplash, also explored sacrifice, albeit in a different vein, asking, “What does it cost to be the best?” Answer: Everything. Greatness requires determined, unbending focus on your goals. In Whiplash, every healthy relationship is justifiably sacrificed for the sake of a dream.
But is that true? Isn’t it possible to have love and achieve your goals? La La Land answers, “Yes and no.” Mia and Sebastian are the catalyst for each other’s achievements. Their love for one another is essential to their growth.
But what quickly becomes apparent in La La Land is the cost of achieving your dreams—one of them will have to sacrifice their own dream to keep the other’s alive. The conflict in La La Land is not if Mia and Sebastian will have to sacrifice something for each other, but who will sacrifice for the other.
This is the love story we need more of.
The ending sequence alone is worth the price of admission in which everything is made beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We aren’t given the romantic payoff we expect, or maybe even the one we think Mia and Sebastian deserve, but it is hard to not be happy for them both.
The scene is a triumphant, dreamy, whirlwind of what ifs that is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. What if everything had happened exactly like Mia dreamed? What if love really was like the movies?
La La Land, in a final push of nostalgia, shows that the fantasizing of the past is the real La La Land, and maybe even the only unattainable dream. Our hopes and dreams may not have materialized, but there is always tomorrow. We can never change the past.
This bittersweet ending doesn’t demean love or mean Mia and Sebastian’s love was worthless, but quite the opposite. The struggle, cost, and sacrifices of Mia and Sebastian’s love are exactly what make it beautiful and worthwhile. It’s what makes La La Land so vibrant and why we need more love stories like it.
Cover image by Caleb Morris.