The Mad Truth of La La Land

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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.

We live the given life, and not the planned.

Wendell Berry

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 Trafton

Jennifer 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)


53 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Emma Chmura

    Emma Chmura

    @emmaj

    I also walked away thinking about Once, and the sacrifice of real love vs. more surface-y romance. (Also, I was incredibly relieved that Mia didn’t abandon her real life in the end. I was nervous about that.) I love how you’ve described the movie, which clearly flows out of a Jennifer Trafton-specific vision. Keep creating, gal! So glad that you and Pete have each other in the cheering section. What a great partnership.

  2. Profile photo of Laura Peterson

    Laura Peterson

    @laura

    [stands and applauds in front of computer screen]

    YES. 100%. This is absolutely what I tried to articulate to friends who didn’t love the movie the same way I did. Thanks for writing something that I can send to them to say “See? This is what I meant!” (And thanks for pointing out the similarities with “Once” – I have similar feels about both films but hadn’t connected them until reading this.)

  3. Profile photo of Andrew Joyce

    Andrew Joyce

    @admin

    Jennifer, thanks for sharing this fantastic post on La La Land. I’ve been pondering similar thoughts since seeing it, and the movie is lodged in my brain very firmly by now. It’s an encouragement to create and an acknowledgement of the people who push us there. This post captures a lot of the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head since then. Appreciate it!

  4. Sarah M

    That was a beautiful reflection on a fantastic movie, and though I’m with you (I *loved* that final scene and thought it brought the movie perfectly to its end), a lot of what you said here made me understand it deeper. I appreciate that.  I just assume that when people don’t get movies (or books, or *story* in the grand sense) it’s because they don’t fully know how to grab out the themes, or symbolism, etc. They’re just more looking for an experience that fits their personality for a few hours. I do feel that I have a bit of an edge in that way, since I have a degree in English. I was trained to look for deeper meanings, as you do too-as a writer.

    The connection to Once makes perfect sense. The music, the main piano piece in La La Land was just SO good. I mean, at the very least, most people I hope would appreciate it simply for the fun tap-dancing scene and that piano piece that gets played a few times throughout.

  5. Profile photo of Sally Zaengle

    Sally Zaengle

    @sallyz

    I went to see La La Land the other day with my daughter Mary. On the way home, I said, “Why couldn’t they be like Pete and Jennifer, each helping the other become who they are meant to become, and yet still being together?”

    And we agreed. The world needs Petes and Jennifers, Andys and Jills. Couples who support each other fully and encourage the other’s creativity.

    The same night we saw La La Land, my father watched Audrey Hepburn and Rock Hudson in Roman Holiday. “I was disappointed in the ending,” he told me the next morning. “I wanted them to be together.”  Roman Holiday never bothered me, though. Audrey Hepburn made a noble and unselfish choice to remain a princess, and Rock Hudson made a noble and unselfish choice to yield to that.

    Something about Ryan and Emma’s choices didn’t feel noble and unselfish. I was left wondering how they could allow five years to elapse without keeping in touch with the one person who helped them find their way.

  6. Profile photo of Jennifer Trafton

    Jennifer Trafton

    @jennifert

    @sallyz I think that’s a fair point. The movie does ask us to make a leap of trust at the end, in that we have to assume that in those 5 years there has been a lot of water under the bridge that we don’t know about. I didn’t have any trouble assuming that life could have taken them in different directions, and that there were good reasons for them not ending up married. But I can understand that the gap in our knowledge of those events left many people unsatisfied. Also, though, I do think it would be hard to make a movie in which EVERYTHING went right for those characters (romance, career, etc.) and it still feel believable and true for an audience. I count myself very lucky to have a husband who shares my vocational path and is my champion in that way. But I don’t think that this is the only kind of happy ending. Partly that may be because I was single for so long, and had other people show me love and encouragement, and feel protective of those who do not end up with that particular dream but whose joy is fulfilled in other ways.

  7. Profile photo of Emma Chmura

    Emma Chmura

    @emmaj

    @jennifert, yes. What you just said. I think that the fact that the story didn’t wrap up with a match between the two main characters made it more encouraging to me. It can feel kind of alienating when all happy endings are the romantic kind, but that’s not the kind of story that your own life has turned out to be, at least to this point. I do like a good romantic story. But I also have a special appreciation for stories that celebrate other loves and other important relationships. Both are valuable, but you don’t see as many good examples of the latter.

  8. Profile photo of Laura Peterson

    Laura Peterson

    @laura

    [Just popped back in to read other comments and saw that in my own comment I typed “I have similar feels about both films” and was appalled. I meant to type “feelings.” Obvi.]

  9. Profile photo of KP Usher

    KP Usher

    @vivaciouskp

    @jennifert – just here to co-sign onto the “not the only kind of happy ending” line. I think we diminish all of life when we reduce happy endings to just how Disney defines them. (I’m also here noting my appreciation of this article. You stirred a lot of thinking that had been lying dormant for a few weeks, particularly Wendell’s quote about living the given life, not the planned.) [I’m further here to love/harass my sister’s use of the word “feels.” I see you, @laura, and you’re lovely.]

  10. Helena

    Jennifer, this is wonderful! I loved the movie, too, and thought the final dream sequence and especially the parting smile were perfect. The smile said they had made peace with their choices and the dream sequence felt a little like Seb’s lament for what might have been. I’ve only seen it once, though, so I had not noticed the detail about Seb not being at the piano. That throws a wrench in the spokes. Otherwise, his slow, thoughtful entrance into the piece,  his expression at the end, etc seemed like his way of honoring the things that were not. Culturally, we don’t have much frame of reference for acknowledging the beautiful-thing-that-is-not, grieving it, then walking away into the good-that-is. Maybe that’s part of the reason for the negative reaction.

  11. Bailey Gillespie

    Everyone that I’ve met and/or seen this film with loves it (except one), which gives me hope. As a granddaughter of a jazz musician and one who grew up on both classic and modern musicals, I adore this movie and the creative and fresh way its director chose to tell an emotional story.

  12. Profile photo of David Mitchel

    David Mitchel

    @dmitchel

    For weeks I had pondered submitting a review of La La Land — which I also loved and the ending of which I also thought was perfect. That look between the leading characters at the movie’s end was utterly beautiful. In both conception and performance it said so much: a picture worth a million words of exposition on romantic sehnsucht in this world.

    But your review is far better than the one I’d started sketching. The idea of La La Land as a midrash on the classic musicals: brilliant. That statement packs pretty much the entirety of what my review would have been into a few words. And then you took that one insight out and traded with it. Amazing thinking and writing.

  13. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Bravo, Jennifer! This is perfect. The rest of you guys don’t know this, but after all the arguments I got in over the ending of this film I decided to channel all that heat into a post called, “The Ending is the Hardest Part.” I wrote a paragraph or two and decided to come back to it later. Little did I know that Jennifer had also started a post about La La Land, so I happily bowed out. I’m glad I did, because she articulated so many of my feels (looking at you, @Laura) better than I ever could have.

    It’s true that we all bring our particular lenses to every film, but I will argue forever that the ending of this story is happy, and more than that it’s a  wiser, truer picture of love between Mia and her husband than whatever might have happened with Seb. The Mia/Seb thing would never have worked. The fact that they got in one fight and then decided outside the observatory to put things on hold, not to mention the fact that five years went by without any contact (five years! That’s long enough to have gotten a college degree, for crying out loud!), is a pretty huge clue that what they had was a beautiful summer fling, not the stuff of true, self-sacrificial, and lasting love. When their eyes first met in the club they both felt the grief of the choice they had made, imagined what might have been, and then shared the acknowledgement that, while the dream is nice, they’re grateful for where they are–Seb with his passion for jazz spilling out on the people in the club, Mia with a kind husband and daughter, not to mention a career.

    One fun little side note that I loved: Mia’s husband was played by Tom Everett Scott, the same guy who played the drummer in That Thing You Do. Remember the ending of that movie? Guy “Shades” Patterson was the one guy in the band who loved music for its own sake, and after the Wonders broke up, he got to sit around the studio playing jazz with his heroes. Not a coincidence. I almost wish the timeline worked out that he was meant to actually be the same guy, but he would be about seventy.

  14. Profile photo of scott james

    scott james

    @scottjames

    This is wonderful, Jennifer. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I loved it. I’m not typically a fan of musicals (with the notable exception of Newsies) but, as you said so well, La La Land is quite different. And that ending was perfect.

    I also appreciated seeing Shades at the end. Way back in the day, I was working as a movie projectionist when TTYD came out. Must’ve watched it (or fragments of it) 100 times during that run. Shades is my favorite.

  15. Deanna

    Thanks for the excellent and thorough review!  I was one of those who, even though I loved the singing and dancing, didn’t really understand the movie and as a result didn’t care for the ending.  Your explanation makes me want to see the movie again!  I hope it’s still in the theaters!

  16. Profile photo of Jen Rose Yokel

    Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Soooooo good, Jennifer! I’m really confused by people not liking the ending, but maybe it is like Helena said… “Culturally, we don’t have much frame of reference for acknowledging the beautiful-thing-that-is-not, grieving it, then walking away into the good-that-is.” What a great thought.

    The first time I saw it, I thought it was pretty okay, and then the ending made it better. Then we listened to the soundtrack a lot and went to see it again and loved it so much more. The second time was when I noticed that in the whole dream sequence, the key thing that was missing was that Seb didn’t achieve his jazz club dream. (I’m glad you mentioned that. Totally didn’t notice though that Mia had a son instead of a daughter.) That little detail leaves me interpreting the scene as Mia’s dream sequence, that she’s imagining a future where she got the guy and her acting career, then accepting the goodness of the paths their individual lives took. This is a happy ending, and it feels true.

    @andrew, my brain just asploded. That Thing You Do is one of my favorites! But I’m really bad at recognizing actors. How delightful.

  17. Profile photo of Laura Peterson

    Laura Peterson

    @laura

    Helena, I’m with @jroseyokel in my appreciation of that “acknowledging the beautiful-thing-that-is-not” thought. Well said.

    And @jroseyokel and @andrew, I almost leapt out of my seat when Guy Patterson showed up at the end! Total delight. I read an interview with the filmmakers where they said his name came up when they were casting and they chose him on purpose because of the TTYD connection. I know @carrieg was also happy about that.

    @jennifert, I’ve been thinking about this post all day. A friend commented that she was 50/50 on the film when she saw it, but after reading this she likes it 100x more. Yay!

  18. Profile photo of Sally Zaengle

    Sally Zaengle

    @sallyz

    @emmaj — “It can feel kind of alienating when all happy endings are the romantic kind, but that’s not the kind of story that your own life has turned out to be…” Thank you for saying that. It really helps me to understand so much better.

    Helena — “Culturally, we don’t have much frame of reference for acknowledging the beautiful-thing-that-is-not, grieving it, then walking away into the good-that-is. Maybe that’s part of the reason for the negative reaction.” Yes. I admit that I really didn’t think of it that way. I appreciate the insight here.

    @laura — you typed “feels” instead of “feelings” but I typed Rock Hudson instead of Gregory Peck. Big oops. Can’t even blame it on a typo.

  19. Profile photo of Laura Peterson

    Laura Peterson

    @laura

    It seems I keep forgetting to log in before I comment. Bah! Sorry if this shows up twice.

    @jennifert – I’ve been thinking about this post all day. A friend commented that reading this made her enjoy the film so much more. Yay!

    Helena – I also love that “beautiful-thing-that-is-not” thought. Well said.

    @andrew and @jroseyokel – Guy Patterson! I almost leapt out of my seat at the theater. I read an interview with the filmmakers where they said he was cast intentionally because of the TTYD connection. I know @carrieg was excited to see him, too.

  20. Profile photo of Meg

    Meg

    @meglet

    I’m like Seb and this movie just hurts too much. My dreams have come true. I am a successful artist and I follow my passion with freedom. But “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to loose”. I can’t help but fear that I’ve chosen art over love. Maybe it’s a false dichotomy, but that’s how it feels.

  21. J.B.

    @andrew: Ha, “he would be about seventy”

    Good call. It’s been too long since I’ve seen That Thing You Do, so I didn’t consider his jazz connection, but we definitely said during the credits, “What an oddly brief cameo. They could have gotten some unknown guy for that.” Spot on; maybe Mia knew what she wanted in a guy but needed to mature a little more. It felt like they made it a point to show how nice of a guy he is (contrasted with the jerk Seb was earlier) despite having such a short amount of screen time. He’s grown-up Seb. I assume they met soon after Mia and Seb parted ways, since they’re married with a kid. That helps me get past the “They could have stayed together and pursued their dreams” complaint.

    I don’t necessarily agree that Mia and Seb were doomed. That feels like it misses the point in a similar way as the idea that the movie wasn’t good because they should have been destined to be together. The inescapable realism Jennifer describes is a major theme. There are no soulmates, there is no destiny, choices matter. It’s not so much that Mia and Seb couldn’t have worked on their relationship and matured into a healthy couple, but neither of them was in a place for that to realistically happen when they met. If Mia hadn’t met time-traveling Spartacus, she could have reconnected with Seb. But life happens, our choices change our paths, and it’s often bittersweet. If they were simply toxic for each other and incompatible, that means the ending wasn’t so much happy as inevitable. The not-quite-right timing is why their fantasy flashback has weight. It lets us feel happy and sad at the same time, which — at the risk of grandiosity — is a real-world tension that’s at the heart of being human.

  22. Kenny Meeks

    I so loved reading this. And, thanks for a peek into your head and heart. The summary of my appreciation for the movie is that they didn’t auto-tune vocals……Ryan Gosling’s slightly off-key warble = perfection.

  23. Profile photo of Jennifer Trafton

    Jennifer Trafton

    @jennifert

    @meglet I lived too many years in the raw ache you describe to cheapen it with a simple answer. Let me just say that I see two opposite tragedies. One tragedy is if someone is so obsessed with following a career path that they deliberately and repeatedly close themselves off to the possibility of relationships (not just romantic ones). I don’t *think* that was Seb’s problem (but we don’t know about those missing 5 years). But the opposite tragedy is if someone settles for a second-best kind of happiness by gutting their own identity and calling for the sake of *any* romantic relationship, rather than be alone. If you took art out of your life entirely, would you still be yourself? Or is it (like Seb’s love of jazz) so integral to who you are that you could not be Meg if you weren’t an artist (successful or not)? If that is the case, then I believe that the best partner for you is the one you meet while walking faithfully in the path of your calling, not the ones you might be able to settle for if you watered down the person God made you to be.

    I know that does not help the loneliness of the in-between time, especially when there is no guarantee, for any of us, that the love we need will be met by a single person. I’m not one of those who talks about a “gift of singleness.” I think grief over the lack of a spouse is as legitimate as grief over the loss of a spouse. But I also cannot believe the Hollywood lie that a romantic ending is the only happy ending. Joy and love come in many, many forms.

  24. Shannon

    BEAUTIFUL! Thank you for writing this!! It expresses in much better words thoughts similar to mine after I saw the movie. I loved it. The ending was heartbreaking but felt right. The only thing I feel as though you didn’t really mention was that Mia basically gets everything she wants in both life and the dream sequence, where Seb gets his passion in life, but not Mia or possibly any love, and in the dream sequence gets the love and family but not the passion. This made me believe either a) it was Mia’s dream of what could have been or b) it was Seb’s dream because he regrets having the club and going after his passion but missed his chance with Mia.

    I am curious as to what you think about that!

  25. Derek

    It was a delightful movie. And this is a great reflection. I appreciated the conversation between artistic expression and making money, like you. I do, however, think some people are reacting against the “choose your career over love” theme.

    While Hollywood can be quite annoying, it does have a long history of portraying love winning over our careers or ambitions. Don’t get me wrong- this is a fantastic movie! But I think they ultimately make the wrong choice-and movies, even when they portray the wrong choice, can be powerful reminders to us to make the right ones. Even those who are passionate about jazz or being a movie star will find fulfillment in these areas ultimately unsatisfying. Seb’s story, for example, is one that gets played out all the time- getting exactly what you want then realizing you’re alone and there’s an emptiness unfilled by the job. For all of the students out there with a dream of playing professional sports or being the next great Jazz musician- I hope the message to them was: “Seb really messed up, and should have stuck things out with Mia,” and not “I should pour every part of myself into my dream, even at the cost of my relationships, because I’ll be happy when I achieve this.”

    The reason Seb and Mia should have stuck it out is exactly what you pointed out- they love each other so much and are willing to call out the other. To push one another, and to make the other better. Love is a giving up of oneself to another, even when that comes at the high price of one’s dreams. But as Seb and Mia found out, when you have someone who does truly love you and pushes you, your career is helped as well.

    I’m glad Seb and Mia found each other love enough to give them a shove toward their respective dream that’s worked out for at least 5 years, but what happens if Seb sells out again? What if Mia loses confidence? This is often the stuff of life, and when it happens, it is best to have a Seb or Mia by your side. One is left to wonder whether Seb’s jazz buddies or Mia’s husband can fulfill such a role.

    (I’d just like to reiterate that I did love the movie, and Jennifer’s reflection! I just wanted to offer this criticism. And for the record, like many, it’s still something I’m stewing over. So I’d love to hear other thoughts on this point to perhaps clear up my own thinking.)

  26. Profile photo of Meg

    Meg

    @meglet

    Thank you Jennifer. I really appreciate your words. They are empowering and hopeful. I certainly see the movie differently now. The fact that I had a strong emotional reaction and lots to think about speaks well for the movie. The other movie that has made me think about this theme for years is Mr. Holland’s Opus. Was that a gut-wrencher for anyone else? It came up with a different answer, but still left me contending with the tension.

  27. Mariilyn Lindholm

    Jennifer, you did an admirable writing job with this one. It makes me want to read more of your writing. Our daughter sent me your article and I have sent it on to our other two. I am a working artist and what you say about Art, Life, Dreaming, Being Grateful for the Life one chooses, hit home 100% with me. Robert Frost says it well in his poem about the two roads and the “one not taken” that has always stayed with me. I look at the road I chose as the one I need to make work. Of course, we have all dreamed about the other road occasionally, but, I am so glad the movie chose to end it the way it did; like real life!  With your fine analysis and good writing, you helped me enjoy it even more. Thank you. The only thing I did not like were all the scenes with “hand held cameras”, I tend to feel dizzy in big screen situations like that. Keep writing, you have a gift!

  28. Profile photo of Michael Gowin

    Michael Gowin

    @mgowin

    This is an outstanding reflection, @jennifert.

    When my wife and I went to see the film, I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yes—that’s the way this story needed to end. After so much struggle, Seb and Mia got what they wanted but they didn’t get each other.” I felt it would have been contrived and trite to see them together—in other words, too Hollywood. And yet the conclusion is heartrending at the same time. It rattled around in my mind for days afterward.

  29. Daniel

    Yes yes yes!! Finally someone put into words what is so magical about this movie. So glad The Grey Haven linked to this.

    Just one thing to add: the way jazz is described (and portrayed) in the movie reveals the theme you mention. Real jazz is not planned, not rehearsed, but making do with what’s at hand. It’s beauty lies in it’s spontaneity, it’s rawness. And so is life.

  30. mm shepherd

    Wow, after last night’s mishap at the oscars (which i did not even watch, rather read in a news article this morning) and after all the tons of posts on FB… I wanted to know more about this movie and, I happened upon this blog. Lucky me! Because I might never have ever seen this movie (as of right now, I haven’t seen it) despite my deep love for musicals. I am so glad you wrote about this–and because you did, I’m off to see this movie the very next chance I get because everything you wrote means I will LOVE this movie!

  31. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jennifer, you nailed the heart of the movie. I related to La La Land a lot, having grown up in Southern California wanting to be a bluegrass banjo/guitar player and having many people try to talk me out of it. “No one plays banjo! Why don’t you play something else?” “How will you ever own a home or raise a family?” It has been a life of joys, disappointments, fear, faith, ups, downs, all along the way. I wouldn’t trade it.

  32. Jennifer

    Yes! This movie was the most accurate depiction of how I see the world. I live in the tension of reality and imagination and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because this movie is a reflection of my souls in so many ways it does feel personal when people I know don’t like it. I felt like I was watching my heart on a screen.

  33. gllen

    Thank you Jennifer, for such an apt enveloping of what this movie portrays, imbues, and might teach us.

    I went to see it after having read your post – a movie I would otherwise have never watched – and it touched, and encouraged, and affirmed me on many levels – both in my relational life, and in my creative/artistic life.

    Thank you for your insightful guidance to this movie-watching novice!

  34. gllen

    Jennifer, thank you (!) for opening up to me a way to approach, ponder, and receive this movie about art, vocation, and real life.

    Becsuse of your post, I went and saw a movie I would never have watched otherwise.

    As a result, my life is richer and fuller in many ways – creatively, relationally, conceptually.

    Thank you for being faithful to your gift – which enables us to increase in scope, and faithfulness, to our gifts

  35. alees

    Your article made me weep. You have so perfectly captured the emotions I felt while watching the film unfold and then dealing with the aftermath of said emotions over the next few days. My reaction led me down a more melancholy and mournful path than yours but, nevertheless, a Good path that I was grateful to walk. Rather than being reminded of vocational struggles or issues of self confidence I had more of a literal experience. I was thrown into what felt like a play-by-play reenactment of my first relationship, the relationship that I feel may have held the greatest love of my life and surely one of the most important. Rarely have I felt such an immediate and intense recognition for a sequence in a film than I did for the ending scenes with the “what might have been?” and the gentle nudge back to reality. I spent the next couple of days living through my own “what might have been?” before gently blinking my eyes open to focus on my calm and sweet love walking beside me into our future. My love and life is a gift that is Not the perfect love that “could have been” and would have also failed like Mia and Seb’s. No, this love and life is better because it is real. It isn’t romance and me getting whatever I want. It’s hard work and fulfillment for both of us. You walked out of the theater feeling hopeful and with relief but it wasn’t until I read your article than I can make that final connection to feel the same because Now I get it! I understand my passionate reaction to the film and the profound effect it has had upon me. Thank you.

  36. Rachel

    Ok. I got a third of the way through this and had to stop because now I really want to see it. Without spoilers. 🙂

  37. Bobbi Standish

    What a wonderful article. I can’t wait to see it now and feel like I will resonate with it, because I loved and understood what you wrote. You do truly have a gift for writing! Please keep it up.

  38. Profile photo of Mark Proctor

    Mark Proctor

    @markdproctor

    Thank you for your words, Jennifer.  Your thoughts and everyone’s comments have helped me as I continue to wrestle with this movie.  One of the mysteries is that of vocation or calling.  Meg, your connection of this movie with Mr. Holland’s Opus is particularly insightful.  Was Mr. Holland’s vocation/calling primarily that of composer or teacher or husband/father?  Obviously he did all three, but not in the same way as if he had taken another path… It didn’t seem as if he wanted to compose for fame or money, he simply loved composing.  When we heard Mr. Holland’s piece of music at the end of the story, he was obviously gifted as a composer.  It was also evident that by the end of the story, he was passionate about/gifted for teaching, but that seemed to grow as he laid his life down for others, including, at least in some measure, laying down his desire to compose as a vocation.  So, what is our calling/vocation?  I would love to hear all of your thoughts, because Mr. Holland seems to paint a different picture than La La Land.

  39. Profile photo of Jennifer Trafton

    Jennifer Trafton

    @jennifert

    @markdproctor This is a great question, and I’m beginning to think (after all the discussion about this) that I might need to write a follow-up post about these further questions of vocation. But a quick reply for now: as I said in the post, if Seb and Mia had been married (and certainly if they had kids) the issue and my response to it would be entirely different. It’s been 20 years since I’ve seen Mr. Holland’s Opus and my memory is vague, but I recall that the fact that he’s a father (of a special needs child, no less) puts a much more complicated spin on the question than what La La Land is dealing with. So I think maybe they’re apples and oranges – but both excellent films that address the question of calling from different angles. And both, again in different ways, also illustrate the Wendell Berry quote, “We live the given life, but not the planned.”

  40. Profile photo of Mark Proctor

    Mark Proctor

    @markdproctor

    Yes, I agree, Jennifer.  The more I wrestle with it, the Wendell Berry quote seems to point to what our calling is- the given life.  Since the given life is so large and such a mystery, that does look different for different people.  Thanks again 🙂

  41. gllen

    I’ve been following this thread of conversation regarding vocation/calling/art/life with interest, as it is something I personally wrestle with in my own pursuit of creative expression. Particularly the difficult internal struggle involved when faced with the apparent two (contradictory?) choices of – 1) “following one’s heart” – ie. vocation/art/creative expression – 2) laying down one’s life as Jesus calls us to – ie. sacrifice/self-denial.

    (I do tend to think about things in black/white – either/or ways, which I’m sure, contributes to the wrestling/struggle which I deal with).

    I’ve been re-reading Eugene Peterson’s autobiography “The Pastor” lately, and last evening (chapter 16) he touched on the dynamic of vocation – both in his own life as pastor as a calling, and in the lives of artists he knew who had distinctions in their own minds between  their “day jobs,” and the art which they were committed to.

    It is a short chapter, but might add some more perspective on this conversation topic.

    (This whole book is a great read, full of insight,humor, and mature wisdom learned over a lifetime of prayerful experience – I can recommend it as worth spending time in).

    As for art nourishing community – and community nourishing art – yeah – I wholeheartedly agree. It is a very exhausting prospect to travel the bumpy journey of an artist alone – we surely need fellow travelers to walk with us at times! But it can be quite difficult to find such companions for the way.

    Also, there’s a Rich Mullins quote which I have been chewing on for some time, that resonates with this discussion as well, I think –

    “If my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I’ll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the Spirit in me, if I live with the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sort of things. That’s the only time I think we really leave a great legacy.”   – Rich Mullins

    Yeah. (!)

  42. gllen

    oops! pardon me! correction necessary – that would be Chapter 19 in Eugene’s bio “The Pastor”

  43. Profile photo of Nicole Eckerson

    Nicole Eckerson

    @nicoleeckerson

    I’m late to this party. But I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. You encapsulated everything I thought (and loved!!) about this film. I sat in the darkened theater, watching Mia sing about the fools who dream, and the tears just would not stop streaming down my face. And you perfectly explained why. Well done.

  44. Karoline

    I couldn’t figure out why I loved this movie so much. I knew it spoke to me on a deeper level, but I just couldn’t place what or where. And your post brought me to (happy) tears, because it voiced exactly what I had felt about La La Land. Thank you for putting your thoughts out here!

  45. John

    Love the film or not (I do), this review is beautifully written, and it digs deep to remind me of what really matters, beyond the screen and out to living. Well done, @jennifert

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