The Mad Truth of La La Land (It’s About Vocation)

This long-form essay is reprinted from The Rabbit Room. 

By Jennifer Trafton

Let me say right off the bat that this post is full of spoilers. It oozes spoilers. Spoilaphobic reader, beware. I want to talk about La La Land and that perplexing, polarizing, absolutely perfect ending.

To set the scene: I went into the movie cold, soon after it came out. I had watched a trailer, and a friend had told me she’d seen it and wasn’t thrilled with the ending, but I knew nothing more than that. I had no idea how it was being received by the public or the critics, had seen nothing on social media about it. I was not particularly a fan of either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone. I love classic musicals but thought this could go either way—fun or super cheesy.

As soon as it ended, Pete and I looked at each other and both of us said, “I loved every second of that.” For the next 48 hours we did very little except listen to the soundtrack and obsess about seeing La La Land again, and then went back to the theatre for an encore and loved it even more the second time. Given the closeness of its themes to our vocations and our marriage, we decided to make it a new annual Christmas tradition.

There are movies that are vegan burgers (I know I’m supposed to appreciate this intellectually but it’s just not tasty to my palate) and movies that are deep dishes of chocolate ice cream (ahem, Meg Ryan + Tom Hanks + cozy bookstores, anyone?). This was one of those rare occasions when I thought I’d found both in one movie: comfort food and an aesthetic A+.

It was only after we’d seen it twice that I began hearing rumblings from the rest of the world about the movie—from friends, Facebook, reviews online, debates over award predictions—and realized that it wasn’t just a few people who didn’t like it or didn’t understand it. Hating on La La Land was a thing. The reactions (especially from people I expected to love it) completely blindsided me. And not because I expect everyone to agree with my opinion of a movie. I was almost alone in disliking the movie Hugo. I was in the minority disliking Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit. I felt “meh” about Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (another post for another day). Pete and I disagree about movies all the time, and when we do agree, we’re often in disagreement with everyone else we know. I’m well accustomed to disagreeing about movies.

This was different, though. My instinctive response to many of the reactions I heard—especially those about the ending, which seems to have pitted friend against friend, husband against wife, almost as sharply as an American presidential election—was not a counter-argument but a double-take: “Wait—what? Are you sure we went to the same film? Maybe you accidentally walked into the wrong theatre and only thought you were seeing La La Land?” It was as if I had asked someone, “Did you like that piece of chocolate cake I gave you?” and he answered, “Fie, the monkey burns with mellow moonflake!” It was that disorienting. All I could do was stand with mouth agape and think, You saw a completely different movie than I did.

Maybe we did see different movies. I have no illusion of being an objective critic—I know quite well that I walked into the theatre wearing a particular set of Jennifer-shaped spectacles. So let me tell you about the movie I saw.

But first, let me set aside two common criticisms (ignoring the debate about jazz, which I’m not qualified to talk about):

First, there are those who think that critics are only fawning over La La Land because it’s a movie about Hollywood. To which I want to reply (with gentle humility and deference, of course), “Um, did you watch this movie?” The movie that says L.A. is a place where everything is worshipped and nothing is valued? The movie that rejects the Hollywood idolization of romance in spite of the fact that doing so has alienated half its audience? The movie in which the actress’s big break only comes after she’s stopped trying to please the movie industry and decides to carve out her own vocational path by telling her homegrown story in live theater? Trust me, I have no loyalty to Hollywood whatsoever. I loved it because it was a movie about calling and joy, and it spoke to me deeply as an introverted writer in Tennessee who has never had the slightest shadow of an ambition to be a famous film star.

Second, I get the feeling a lot of people expected it be a reboot of a classic musical and then were disappointed that it didn’t live up to Singing in the Rain. It’s easy to poke fun at Ryan Gosling’s voice or nitpick over the choreography, but I think this is missing the point. La La Land is not so much a new musical as it is a kind of midrash on the old musicals. That’s one of my favorite things that art can do—stand on the backs of those who came before, comment upon them, and reach for something different. Director Damien Chazelle, was, I think, using the visual language, the tropes, the conventions of the old Hollywood musicals to do something new, to tell a very particular story. (And let’s face it, telling a rich and compelling story was not the top priority for many of those classic movie musicals we love; the plot was often just the thin glue for the song-and-dance numbers.)

Case in point: In the middle of a Singing in the Rain-ish song-and-dance number near the beginning of La La Land, a cell phone rings and ruins the moment. That’s not just comic relief; that’s the thematic tension of the entire movie breaking humorously into the scene—fantasy, art, bumping up against reality. As much as they may want to be, as high as their aspirations might soar, Seb and Mia aren’t Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. They aren’t fabulous singers. They aren’t fabulous dancers. They’re ordinary people with cell phones. They’re me. And just like that, with the intrusion of that familiar ringtone, we’re presented with the movie’s central conceit.

In the old Hollywood musicals, the musical numbers are just sort of there. There’s no explanation really for why all these people are suddenly singing and dancing. We just accept it. La La Land, however, makes a kind of sense out of that weird alternate reality. Throughout the movie there are two layers to the story: the fantasy/dream layer, and the earthy reality layer. It’s the story, after all, of people who have come to the city with enormous dreams for their lives.

The opening ensemble dance on the freeway, “Another Day of Sun,” smacks us in the face with its starry-eyed optimism, followed quickly by the calculating ambition of “Someone in the Crowd.” Later come the more wistful “City of Stars” and the romantic ballet-in-the-air scene at the planetarium. Each of these scenes in the first half of the movie dramatize, outwardly, the inner dreams that swirl in and around and through the characters . . . dreams of glory, success, a place in the world where we fit, a person in the world we fit with. Haven’t you ever been so excited, or so in love, that your heart was tap dancing on the inside?

But La La Land juxtaposes that layer of the story with a distinctly unglamorous realism. During the long middle part of the movie (where some people get bored), the songs mostly disappear—for a good reason. Seb and Mia have moved from the dreamy optimism of the opening scenes to the everyday struggle of pursuing those dreams. No one is dancing on the roof of their car or floating in the air or bursting into harmony. This is the real world, after all, where you get rejected so many times you want to give up, where bills have to be paid, where a relationship hurts. The argument they have is the way arguments between couples really work, full of escalating misinterpretations and perfectly-aimed, instantly-regretted arrows. The more I think about it, the more Ryan Gosling’s slightly off-key warble seems appropriate in this movie. It’s not ironic. It’s kind of endearing (in a way that’s completely opposite those “Hey, Girl” memes). Its flaws make him believable.

So I’ve said this is a movie about calling and joy, and I’ve said it’s a movie about fantasy and reality. All those themes lead us directly to that controversial ending.

When the credits roll, Mia has a successful acting career, an obviously kind and loving husband, and a daughter she adores. Seb, though not married, is sharing his fierce passion for jazz with a packed audience in his very own club. And yet people are saying this movie doesn’t have a happy ending—it’s melancholy and cynical and depressing. Come again?

I read somewhere that La La Land depicts the triumph of selfish ambition and success over love, which is ludicrous. For one thing, it is abundantly clear from the start that the story of Seb and Mia is a story of vocation and passion, in contrast to the shallow ambition of those who are simply chasing fame in L.A., the roommates who only go to parties to be seen by the right career-launching person, the boorish writer bragging about how his books are getting talked about. Seb wants to open a jazz club because he loves jazz—with a passion that’s almost irritating and that can’t help but spill out of him onto everyone around him, whether they like it or not.

Mia calls him away from the temptations of mere ambition and financial success, calls him back to the roots of his joy in spite of its lonelier and riskier path, because “people love what other people are passionate about.” And not one of those flashy wannabes in the opening musical numbers would have sung the “Audition” song Mia sings at the end, but that’s the Mia we’ve seen blossom in this story—the Mia whose love for acting is grounded in memories of her family, whose old bedroom window in Boulder served as the setting for her childhood dreams as well as her first original play.

This part of the movie rang all of my bells, because I am Mia. Not in personality, not in career choice, certainly not in fashion (though I’m still drooling over her red handbag). I’ve been living her struggle for most of my adult life, caught between the strong pull towards artistic and cultural conformity and the terrifying prospect of carving out one’s own unique vocational path despite a strong possibility of failure, the misunderstanding of other people, the financial insecurity, and the ever-present monster of self-doubt. How many times have I stood there like Mia and cried, “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too hard. It hurts too much. What if I’m not good enough? . . . But what if I’m not?”

So many of Mia’s conversations with Seb reminded me of my conversations with my husband—one side hopeful but hesitant, the other full of effusive reassurances and pointed challenges: “This story is awesome. You are awesome. Who cares what anyone else thinks?” The main difference being that Seb is a jerk for a lot of the movie, and Pete isn’t. Pete would have been sitting in the front row of my debut performance with tears pouring down his face.

But Pete has said, in different words, and on countless occasions, “Stop being a baby and go to that audition.” Or, Look, I’m not going to coddle your self-pity, because to do so would be the opposite of loving you. Loving you, right now, means pouring cold water on your self-sabotaging angst and leading you to that desk where you can make the art only you can make and be the person you are meant to be, whether you feel like it or not. If it hadn’t been for that blunt love from Pete (and a few other people close to me) over the last five years, I honestly don’t know whether I would still be writing anything today.

Real love is helping the other person become the person he or she is supposed to be, no matter the cost to yourself. When Seb and Mia part because their callings (the callings each of them challenged the other to follow) are taking them in different directions, that’s not romance, but it is love. (Note that I would not be saying this if they were married—because a third, shared calling would then take primacy). And we are richly blessed in life if people come along who love us in that way on our journey—not just the people destined to be our spouses.

There have been those who have dropped into my life for a season, or a moment, who did that for me—challenged me to step out of my fear and farther on the path of my calling—and I will forever be grateful. In this sense the ending of La La Land is a whole lot like the ending of Once: the story of two strangers who love each for a brief period with that kind of love, who give each other the courage to take the next steps in the paths they are meant to take, which happen to lead away from each other. And it’s beautiful.

Okay, then, why that weird mini-movie dream sequence that interrupts the ending? What’s going on with that, anyway? I’ve heard from many people—including people who were accosted by multiple perplexed husbands seeking explanations as they walked out of the theatre—that this was the sticking point for them. Which makes me sad, because when that sequence started, I felt like I had come home to something. That is exactly how my imagination works.

If La La Land had ended with Seb and Mia together and both living their dreams, that would have been frothy wish-fulfillment, and wish-fulfillment is ultimately not emotionally satisfying; we all would have forgotten about the movie the next day. If the movie had ended with the two of them having drifted apart and seeing each other years later in the club, but without the dream sequence, that would have been depressing and cynical. It was the dream sequence, and only the dream sequence, that made this entire movie come together and work.

For one thing, it is cinematically magnificent. We began the movie with musical exuberance; we trod through the darker realism of the movie’s second half; we’ve been drawn back into the glow of the dream gently with Mia’s audition. But now, the exuberance floods back onto the screen again as the earlier musical themes return and tangle themselves together like the final movement in a symphony. Visual allusions to old Hollywood musicals like Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris explode like fireworks. (When an author quotes something, do you sit up a listen? Yes, there’s a purpose…) We are swept through a whole range of human emotions in a single wordless sequence like that beautiful montage at the beginning of Pixar’s Up. Joy and melancholy intertwine and dance.

Is it Seb’s dream? Is it Mia’s? It doesn’t matter. The question itself is too literal. This is no different from the moment when they take off flying around the planetarium before they kiss. Did that make sense? Not physically, no. But emotionally, it felt true. Reality pauses and there is a moment of communion when they get to play out, together, the fantasy of being in love and seeing your dreams come true. When an artist/writer/filmmaker does that, it’s a signal: hey, let go of your hold on the world a little bit, because I’ve got something to show you that doesn’t fit into literal boxes. There’s a truth beyond logic here. Pay attention.

In this sideways reality, Seb and Mia get to live out their alternative “happy” ending. There is a sense in which they will always possess that fantasy; there will always be that parallel dream version of life in which Seb kisses her at the right time and follows her to Paris and there is no conflict and no hard choice. This is the classic Hollywood musical version of Mia and Seb’s story; the perfect movie those freeway dancers at the beginning would have wanted.

And here’s the brilliance: it is both joy-giving and ultimately a fantasy, at the same moment. We need those dreams. We need those candy-colored love stories and song-and-dance numbers that happen in our imagination, because they fuel us. But we don’t live in them. And La La Land is a masterpiece because it interweaves the fantasy with the reality in a way that is the very opposite of modern cynicism. It affirms the value of dreaming while at the same time not romanticizing real life. We don’t live in the dream. But the dreaming is still good.

There’s one more thing going on here, though. Their “happy ending” is still not quite happy, even in the perfect mini-movie version. Because as the dream sequence comes to a close, we see that in this version Mia has everything: except—notice—her daughter, who has been replaced by a son. (If you have a daughter and a son, ask yourself: are they interchangeable?). But Seb walks with her into someone else’s jazz club, and he is in the audience, not at the piano where he belongs. And because this is a movie about calling and joy, not romance, that would be a betrayal of the whole story. Mia’s love for Seb pushed him in the direction of becoming the person he was supposed to become, creating a space in the world for his own peculiar joy to pour itself out upon other people, just as he pushed her to do. The real tragic ending would have been if he had not been on the stage of that jazz club.

Which is why the tension of the ending breaks only in a very quiet, easily overlooked, wordless moment as Mia lingers at the door and looks back at Seb sitting at the piano. And he smiles, just a little, and nods. And her face relaxes into a smile, and she turns away. Did you see the smile? It’s a perfectly nuanced, impeccably timed moment of visual storytelling. Everything is going to be fine. Life is not a movie (we’ve just seen the perfect movie; it failed), but in the end there is a nod and a smile, a quiet acceptance as we turn and walk back to the good life we’ve been given.

If that’s not a true happy ending, I don’t know what is. For me, it was profoundly hopeful. I walked out of the theatre with a feeling of release from the angst of grasping my dreams too tightly, of fearing that the future will spin a story of disappointment and sacrifice. No, the joy of the fantasy and the smile of contentment with reality can coexist. It reminded me of one of my favorite lines from a poem of Wendell Berry’s: “We live the given life, and not the planned.”

The backlash against La La Land sort of punched me in the gut because the movie so beautifully captured my vocational struggles, my relationship with my husband, and my narrative aesthetic that the criticism felt personal somehow. You don’t get it? Do you get me? Which is obviously very silly. It’s only a movie. But art is like that. It gets under our skin. It wiggles its way into the cracks in our hearts. It can also—if it’s good art (and “La La Land” is good art, whether or not you think it’s great)—be a cipher into which we pour our own experience, our own heartbreak, our own hopes, and it molds itself to the shape we fill it with.

As a writer, I desperately need to untether story from literal reality, and I need to know there is audience out there that understands such stories. I’m not talking about pure fantasy, where we’re transported to Middle Earth or some other world and simply exchange one set of reality rules for another. I’m talking about stories that allow us to see our own world, our own rules of reality, stretched like taffy. Some would call this magical realism, and more and more I’m beginning to think that magical realism is the genre that best suits a worldview that takes seriously both the inherent goodness and beauty of the earth and the possibility of transcendence (another post for another day). Art helps us learn to see reality stretched; that is its unique power. That is, in fact, the point of Mia’s climactic audition song; art’s madness is its key to truth, and its messiness is the price we gladly pay for a brief glimpse.

A bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us
So bring on the rebels, the ripples from pebbles
The painters and poets and plays
And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I don’t know how anyone can hear that song and then walk out of the movie theatre saying, “Meh. Kinda cute, but that’s it”—unless you’ve honestly never felt totally out of sync with the world, a little mad, a little too in love with colors no one else seems to see, just a heartbroken mess with a foolish dream to create something lasting. But gosh, over here in crazyland, that’s my heart’s song. I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie that sung it back to me so perfectly.

In the musical version of my own life, I’m going to sing and dance very badly. I’m going to make a mess. I’m going to have to sacrifice some good things for the sake of other good things. But I’m trusting that somewhere, someone in the audience will be saying, “That’s beautiful, because that is a real, flawed human life, graced by a dream.”

Profile photo of Jennifer TraftonJennifer Trafton served as the managing editor of Christian History magazine before returning to her first love, children’s literature. Her first novel, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, was a nominee for Tennessee’s 2012 Volunteer State Book Award. Jennifer lives with her husband, Pete, and teaches creative writing to children in Nashville. She’s currently working on several delightful new books such as Henry and the Chalk Dragon (to be released in 2017 from Rabbit Room Press).

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