When myself and two of my flatmates emerged from the cinema after seeing La La Land, one of them really wasn’t sure about it. At times it seemed to be a parody, then it sank right back into the role of sentimental romcom. Obviously, this film is a lot more than a romcom, but I think because of that initial reaction it has taken me a while to understand why I enjoyed it so much.
At first I thought the film was making fun of over-romanticisation. This would make sense, I thought, because you’re drawn into thinking that, then smacked in the face. There’s the perfect lining up of Mia being in the exact right place at the exact right time to be the only person in the world who appreciates Sebastian’s playing. But then, when I say smacked in the face, what I mean is shoulder-barge. As in, he literally shoulder-barges her when she tries to introduce herself.
So from here I was assuming it wasn’t going to be a romantic story. And I was very happy. I adore romanticism being called out for what it is, a lie. A really, really unhelpful lie that puts absurd expectations on everyday people and relationships, and means that real life can never hope to live up to the movies.
But then I remembered something Seb had said earlier on (or says just afterwards. I saw it a while ago and the chronology isn’t linear): “You say romantic as if it’s a dirty word!” He says this to his sister, when she corrects a term he uses for getting ripped off (“Shanghai-ed”) to ripped off. At this point, I realised that the film knows very, very well what it’s doing. And maybe it’s trying to challenge my expectations of expectations being challenged.
I watch the rest of the film thinking things like this. My theory is still holding up when Mia nearly breaks the fourth wall by producing a pair of tap shoes from her handbag and dancing with Seb. The film knows it’s being silly, and it’s letting me know it knows it. What? it asks, I know I’m a film – why would you want to pay to watch real life? At this point I’m really excited. A celebration of escapism – that seemed so new and fresh! Not to mention necessary after the year politics has just had.
Skip to the crucial moment – will she get the acting gig she’s been hoping for? It takes a while to tell you, the tension building like an elastic band trying to drag you out your seat. And then you realise that she’s a famous actress, she’s achieved her dreams – but she’s not with Seb anymore. She has a lovely new husband, and they have a child together, and they all seem really happy. Seb too seems happy, having achieved his dream of opening his own jazz club.
Obviously I have some adjustments to make. One half of the film – the relationship – has gone in the realist direction, while the other half – the characters’ careers – have blossomed into beautiful hyperboles of their wildest hopes come true. I’m doing my best until the very end, through a cartoonish montage of what could have been, then the nod they share where they acknowledge each other then part ways, to understand what this film is trying to tell me.
I think what I’ve decided it’s trying to tell me is this: escapism in a movie is good, and great fun. But if a relationship doesn’t work out the perfect way you want it to in your head, that’s okay. You can still have those great memories and look back on them and imagine yourself singing and dancing with that person. There’s obviously also the advice to put your career (and/or dreams) before love, because for one thing if Mia hadn’t taken the job then she wouldn’t have been the same person Seb fell in love with – same with the tension that grew between them while Seb was in his band.
I think I will get this on DVD when it comes out, because I really do think there’s lots yet to get out of this movie. Obviously if you’re reading this then you looked past the spoiler warning so I’m guessing you’ve already seen it. Maybe you took something different from it from me, or maybe you just like the music. Either way, I can wholeheartedly recommend this film to anyone who’s interested in how humans interact with each other, how art interacts with the world and of course, jazz.
– Joanne Ferguson