WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
La La Land, director Damian Chazelle’s critically beloved new film, is at first glance a story as glossy, dreamy, and surface-level glam as the city for which it’s named. Chazelle’s cinematic world, all primary colors and musical interludes, is one where the mundane—a traffic jam; the eternal quandary of whether to go out or veg out—can spark a wildly over-the-top song-and-dance number. As a tribute to Hollywood’s golden age of movie musicals it captures the nostalgia and optimism of that era in film. As a love story, it’s transporting, a charismatic, wistful duet between stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (who are not, I should note, particularly good at singing, but it works).
If you want my topline impression, it can be summarized as: Go see La La Land; you will be very entertained and at least a little moved, and Chazelle’s shiny vision is a great, much-needed diversion from the gritty, less-than-buoyant real world.
I’m not here, though, to go on about that. I’m here to talk about what runs beneath that burnished surface, which seems to me a strong current of gender critique. Is Damien Chazelle channeling his inner feminist in La La Land? I’m going to argue yes.
Stone is Mia, an aspiring actor stuck working as a barista at the coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot, sneaking away on the regular for terrible auditions with distracted, unimaginative casting directors, and slowly losing confidence in the talent that made her leave behind her backwater birthplace in Boulder City, Nevada, for the bright lights of Hollywood. Her problem, the film asserts at various points, is that she’s too dependent on external validation (then again, she’s an actress).
You know who’s not at all dependent on external validation? Gosling’s Sebastian, a disgruntled jazz pianist whose purist notions of how jazz must be played and heard is very much not in keeping with the freedom and experimentation that drew him to the form in the first place. Sebastian scrapes by—and chips away at his soul—playing Christmas carols at cocktail bars, while dreaming of opening his own club, which he plans to call Chicken on a Stick even though that’s obviously a really bad name. (Oh, yeah, La La Land can be really funny; that’s another reason to go see it.)
It takes a series of meet cutes—in said traffic jam, at said Christmas-themed cocktail bar, at a pool party—before it’s obvious to these two frustrated romantics that they should probably just fall in love. And that they do: Cue a montage of happy, halcyon summer days, then cut to the weather, and their ardor, cooling. La La Land is organized seasonally, and by autumn, there are more than a few hints that there’s trouble in paradise.
As my colleague, exiting our screening, wondered: Will Ryan Gosling ever get a happy ending? The answer is still no. La La Land, as its whimsical title suggests, is a film about dreamers. But is there room enough for two dreams in one relationship? Nope, Chazelle seems to be suggesting.
Pursuit of their individual ambitions ultimately costs Mia and Sebastian their future together. To make money to open his club—and possibly to show his girlfriend that he can man up and get a real job—Sebastian joins a kind of terrible jazz fusion band fronted by John Legend, signing on to a Sisyphean cycle of recording, touring, recording, and touring. “When are you done?” Mia asks naively. The answer is basically never. Meanwhile Mia stays home slaving over her one-woman show, and bristles at the suggestion that she accompany her boyfriend on the road to make their relationship work.
Is there any simpler way to portend a feminist awakening than a one-woman show? I think not. Like whatever makes a butterfly finally emerge from its chrysalis, Goodbye Boulder City, Mia’s monologue, springs her from a life of barista-ing and humiliating auditions. The early reviews may be negative—enough to send her running back to the womb/Boulder City—but ultimately the producers come a-knocking.
So by the end of their romance, our two heroes are at an impasse, Mia destined for a big role on a film shooting in Paris, and Sebastian’s now the one left behind to “get my own thing going.” They take a wait-and-see approach, but we all know what that means.
La La Land ends five years in the future. Mia is a big star, the kind who has her face plastered on billboards. She’s also a mother and a wife, though not Sebastian’s. Instead she married that guy from That Thing You Do (Tom Everett Scott), who seems to be there mostly to play the role of supportive house-husband and hunky red carpet escort. One night they go out and wander into a jazz club that just so happens to be the one Sebastian finally got it together to open (thankfully named Seb’s, not Chicken on a Stick).
Kind of a strong move to show up in black tie with your husband at your ex’s newly opened jazz club and leave him no choice but to perform for you, no? As Sebastian plunks out the opening notes of the song previously established as “their song,” Mia enters a fugue state, a Sliding Doors–style trance in which she envisions a life that might have been, the road not taken.
Does she daydream about the compromises they might have made? What if they had just waited for each other? What if she had joined Sebastian on the road? What if she helped him open his club?
No, this is a fully feminist fantasy: Mia imagines Sebastian coming with her to France, whiling away his hours playing Parisian jazz clubs. She imagines herself pregnant with their child, painting the nursery walls pink. When the baby is born, he seems to be a boy. Why the pink nursery? Why not.
In this dream, Sebastian doesn’t get the club, but he does get the girl. Mia, on the other hand, gets everything she wanted. It’s her fantasy after all, but in a film that’s all about the power of not giving up on your dreams, it seems that we should take note.
If nothing else, I like that Chazelle leaves us there. A little on the nose? Perhaps, but that’s musicals for you. As the director told Vogue’s John Powers: “Musicals are in a way the most truthful genre because they’re emotionally truthful. They’re about how the world makes us feel, not how it actually is.”
The post A Feminist Reading of La La Land appeared first on Vogue.