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Just a girl in the world.

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles in La La Land (IMDb).

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle

PG-13, 128 min, Limited theater release 16 December 2016, expanding in the next few weeks

Warning! Plot points of La La Land are discussed below.

For those expecting a lavish, heart-fluttering and swooning musical romance (again) between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land, you may be disappointed. The marketing for the film plays on the appeal of an old-style movie musical (think Gene Kelly) about a lush romance between two charismatic and creative people. It only happens to be set in present-day Los Angeles.

Well, that isn’t entirely what you get. For starters, the film is a lot heavier on the instrumentals and dancing part of musicals than the “belting my heart out in a crowd” part, despite a complex and grand opening number. La La Land takes its cues more from An American in Paris than, say, Singin’ in the Rain, as the former is more dance- and visual aesthetics-focused than most musicals of the period.

Another possible disappointment is that the romance is not as sweeping and vital as you are led to believe it will be. The film largely takes place over one year – really, about 10 months – divided into sections by season, and Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling) are only together for two full seasons. For a hypothetically monumental relationship, they aren’t together for long (which might actually make the romantic heart ache all the more).

By the end of the film, the true “romance” of the film has revealed itself. In the final scene, we see that Mia and Sebastian have been apart for five years, and have both moved on in their separate ways. Despite this news that should make us sad, the ending doesn’t feel very upsetting at all. That might be because Mia and Sebastian have both achieved their much-talked-about dreams, finally. Sebastian has opened his own jazz club where “real” jazz musicians are given a spotlight to audiences who pay attention, and Mia has become a successful actress who is able to patronize the café she used to work at. Through the entire film, that success as an actress and jazz club owner is what they really want and we can sense that their romantic lives are a delicious side dish rather than the entrée.

Mia and Sebastian’s fascination with, and then infatuation with each other, is always wrapped up in what they are trying to achieve professionally. They rely on each other for moral support – Mia when her auditions flop, and when she plans her one-woman show, and Sebastian when he is struggling to find work that would enable him to save money – and they share their art with each other (Mia performs her one-woman show for him first; he gradually schools her in jazz so she can love it like he does, she suggests a name and logo for his club..). Yes, these can be qualities of any relationship. But in La La Land, essentially all we see of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship are these moments wrapped up in their professional ambitions. We are granted one montage at the outset of their relationship that covers all of the generic happy couple activities, but afterwards they are presented as being invaluable partners in helping the other achieve their creative goals, more so than as “I’ll love you ‘til I die” romantic partners.

Sebastian shows Mia "real jazz"
Sebastian shows Mia "real jazz"

La La Land becomes a film about the relationship you have with your own dreams and creativity. Personal romance is never ranked first in importance, and the film subtly makes this clear with the first lines of music we hear.

The film opens with a traffic jam, in which we dolly past several cars and their drivers listening to various songs and styles of music. Gradually the score kicks in, and we land on a woman who begins to sing along to the beat:

“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/ ‘Cause I just knew.”

The song incorporates more performers as they each sing about moving to L.A. in pursuit of their dreams, a “brave or insane” idea, and how this sense of passion and hope in the sunny city makes everything OK even when the going’s tough. These lyrics bring us immediately to a place where romance – even if it’s “sweet and true” – can be sacrificed for the potential for success in a partner’s career.

When Mia and Sebastian are at their happiest, they sing a duet version of an earlier song, “City of Stars.” This song should be the “I’ll love you forever song” – it’s only their second duet and the first is the “we’re not going to fall in love” song (*credit to Linda Holmes), but it is quiet and subdued in a nearly-forgettable way. The message is sweet however, and in a way this is them thanking the other for being their support and their source of hope when they are both are their lowest and potentially on the verge of giving up their dreams altogether. Together they sing:

“Yes, all we’re looking for is love from someone else/ A rush/ A glance/A touch/ A dance/ A look in somebody’s eyes/To light up the skies/ To open the world and send it reeling/ A voice that says, I’ll be here/ And you’ll be alright.”

Mia in costume for her solo performance
Mia in costume for her solo performance

This is ultimately why their short-lived relationship is so important to them, and why they know they will always love each other. They came into each other’s life at a time when they had very little hope, and no one was encouraging them in the way they needed. We can see the effect Sebastian’s presence has on Mia when she has an incredibly disappointing callback and leaves the room nearly in tears, but as she drives away and remembers her date with Sebastian that night her demeanor relaxes and she smiles to herself because there’s some light in her life again. While he’s with Mia, Sebastian is finally able to get rid of his stubborn pride that keeps losing him jobs (the oh-so-attractive gigs of Christmas-restaurant pianist and 80s cover band keyboard player) long enough to work with an old friend who offers him a plum gig as a real musician.

That decision to join his friend’s band and go on tour is ultimately what dooms Sebastian’s and Mia’s relationship. Their mutual reliance on each other for emotional support cannot withstand the distance and missed-meetings. By the time he realizes he doesn’t want to be in the band anymore, circumstances have aligned so that she is primed to receive a lush acting opportunity that would take up her life with rehearsals and shooting in Paris for nearly a year. Timing just isn’t on their side.

After Mia’s audition – in which she gets the only “belter” song of the film, consisting of her telling a story about her beloved aunt, and her inspiration, as an ode to “the fools who dream/Crazy as they may seem”-- Mia and Sebastian talk warmly to each other about their future. They know it’s over and the timing is failing them, but they both admit “I will always love you.” In this scene we can see how much this relationship meant to them, but that it doesn’t mean so much that they would forgo their dreams a day longer for it.

Sebastian at the keys
Sebastian at the keys

And then, an epilogue. Five years later and nearly everything has changed. (I have opinions on the reality of Mia’s specific trajectory, but I’ll spare you).

The film ties a beautiful bow on itself when Mia and her current partner stumble into what turns out to be Sebastian’s jazz club. Sebastian spots her in the crowd, and they both have a startling moment when being faced with their past – a lovely but beguiling relic from a time when they were still struggling faces in the crowd.

Sebastian sits down to play the song we recognize as their theme. And then, the film flips into purely cinematic magic: we go back to the scene in which Mia and Sebastian first meet as Mia is drawn into a nightclub by his sad, beautiful music. This time, instead of brushing past her rudely, he grabs her and kisses her. And we’re off – as we witness a whirlwind tour of their relationship highlights, covering every song in the film and recreating every moment in its best possible alternative, in the most beautiful costumes and sets rather than in the real world of L.A. It’s a beautiful ode to their time together, as well as a bittersweet rumination on what “could” have been – or rather, what the relationship could have been if everything went as well as possible. With the lavish sets and continuous dancing and heightened romance the sequence also gives us a knowing glimpse of what this film could have been like from the beginning if it were actually an MGM musical, in which the two leads are just dancing towards an inevitable happy ending together the entire time, and there is no doubt that it will happen. La La Land takes place in a reality more familiar to us, however, and so the leads will not live “happily ever after” with each other, but the dreams they had for themselves have been achieved.

'La La Land' is now in theaters. Watch the trailer below:

photos: IMDb, Dale Robinette

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