If you have spent any amount of time with me within the last few weeks then you probably know how obsessed I am currently with Damien Chazelle’s newest movie La La Land. For those of you who don’t know, La La Land is a modern musical about Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who fall in love while following their dreams: her’s to be an actress and his to start a jazz club. If you haven’t seen it, then stop reading now as this post contains spoilers (also why haven’t you seen it?) but if you have then keep reading because I want to take some time to discuss the ending of this film. Yeah, you know what part I’m talking about. The epilogue, the “five years later”, the moment where the film went from great to amazing and you weren’t sure if you felt exuberant joy or devastating heartbreak. Technological components aside, there is a lot going on here within the story itself that I think adds to the film as a whole and is worthy of discussion.
One of the things I love about La La Land’s epilogue is how seemingly ambiguous it is. Everyone I’ve talked to has a different opinion on what this final montage represents. Most think this is Mia and Sebastian picturing how different their lives would be if they had stayed together, while another theory I’ve heard believes it to be Sebastian using music to communicate to Mia his lingering love for her in a way words cannot communicate. I think the first is closer to true, but not entirely so. I believe Chazelle makes it clear that this is entirely from Mia’s perspective; we are seeing her relive her memories and picture her present differently, and although Sebastian is present in these imaginings, they are Mia’s only. For example, the beginning of the montage begins with Mia arriving at JK Simmon’s restaurant where she sees Seb playing for the first time. In the beginning of the film, this scene was the final moment of Mia’s introduction to the audience and preceded Seb’s intro. When we are taken back to this moment in the epilogue, it is again from Mia’s perspective as she is, for the second time, watching Seb play. As the montage continues, we relive more moments (or memories) from the film but they continue to only be crucial moments for Mia, such as performing her one-woman play, singing during her audition, etc. We never revisit any moments from the film that center on Sebastian, like when he played in front of the crowd in Keith’s (John Legend) band, because these are not his memories. To further back this up, when we are first shown how these two character’s lives have changed in the five years since they last have seen each other, we see that Mia is finally a successful actress and has started a family with another man, while Seb has also achieved his dream and has started his club yet lives alone. Later, when Mia is picturing what her life would be like with Seb post-Paris, Seb is placed into her present day life and not the other way around. He is at her house with their child, he is the one driving her in the car through LA, and he is the one going to the jazz club with Mia. We don’t see Mia interjected into Seb’s new life, but the other way around. It is clear that this entire montage is from Mia’s perspective.
And now it gets interesting. We’ve established the final montage is Mia recalling memories of her and Sebastian together, but these memories are not at all accurate. One of the things I found fascinating about the epilogue is Chazelle’s decision to dramatize all of Mia’s memories. In reality, when she firsts hears Seb play in JK Simmons’ restaurant, he nearly knocks her over before she can even finish her sentence…yet in her memory of the event, Sebastian embraces and kisses her. Other memories are similarly skewed, such as her one-woman play which she remembers performed in front of a packed house when, in reality, the theater was nearly empty, or how Sebastian dismissed Keith’s offer to join his band when he actually took it. Even grumpy ole JK Simmons is smug and playful in Mia’s retelling of events. So why are her memories so different from what actually happened? I believe it’s to reinforce how strong Mia and Sebastian’s love truly was while also revealing the romantic within her. How many of you have been reminded of a past relationship with someone you truly cared about and remembered everything that was good while conveniently leaving out everything that was bad? I know I have. In addition, romantics tend to, well, romanticize things while realists will stay grounded. So is it any wonder that Mia’s memory of her relationship with Seb would be shown to us through a spectacular eight minute musical medley. But no matter how magical and charming these memories are, they are not realistic, and Mia know this.
Damien Chazelle has said, with La La Land, he wanted to explore the balance between dreams and reality. There are some very poignant moments in the film that reflect this exploration, but La La Land’s epilogue does so in a more subtle, yet very powerful way. Let’s recap: This epilogue is Mia reflecting on her memories with Sebastian, but they are romanticized and not truly accurate. So it’s safe to assume that her idea of what her life with Sebastian would have looked like had they stayed together is also not accurate of how it actually would have been. Rather than joy and harmony (dream), I believe a life together would have eventually led to conflict and resentment (reality). Why’s that? Well let me ask you this: did you catch that during Mia’s idea of what her and Sebastian’s life together would be like, Seb never gets around to starting his club? Yeah, they go off to Paris and play jazz and dance together there and have a grand ole time fulfilling Mia’s dreams, but Seb never fulfills his. Mia becomes the actress while Seb remains club-less; in fact we see them go together to his own club, now owned by someone else, to watch other musicians play. Do we really think Seb would drop his dream just to be with Mia, seeing hers come true while his never do? I don’t think so. Because at the heart of it all, their dreams are their first love. Remember when Mia goes home and we see her old theater programs and awards from when she was a child? Mia loved Sebastian for a year, but she’s loved acting her entire life. It’s why she refused to join Seb on his tour with Keith, and likewise why Seb stayed in LA while Mia left for Paris. They could be happy and in love and at peace with each other until it got in the way of their dream; that’s when conflict ensued. If they stayed together, one of them would have had to sacrifice their dream, a sacrifice neither was willing to make. So in that final shot, when Mia looks to Seb, she smiles, and he smiles back. She smiles because she knows that both of them truly got what they wanted and what they have worked for their entire lives. Yes, their love for each other was true and pure and passionate, but it wasn’t their dream. While everyone I’ve talked to has told me this moment left them heartbroken, I think, in a way, it’s heartwarming. I can only imagine how often Mia has thought about Sebastian in those five years, thinking to herself “I wonder how Seb is doing. If he ever got around to starting that club. If he called it ‘Chicken on a Stick’ or not. I wonder if Seb ever made his dream come true.” And in this moment she gets to see that he has. The dream she encouraged him in and became so passionate about due to Seb’s passion for it, she got to see it come true. As hard as I’m sure it was for her to see Sebastian that night, I think it ultimately made her really happy.
Written by Zack Peters
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