This analytical post contains big spoilers for La La Land.
Midway through La La Land, the two main characters, Sebastian and Mia, start arguing about their futures over dinner.
“What about your club?” Mia asks. Sebastian, or Seb as he likes to call himself, wants to open a jazz club in his hometown to preserve a dying music genre. He strongly believes in the purity of traditional jazz music, and became a skilled pianist because of it. Mia openly declares on one of their early dates that she “hates jazz”, much to Seb’s horror and disbelief. He manages to convert her to into a jazz fan after taking her to a jazz club, and playing many of the jazz songs that he has meticulously learned on his piano.
However, Seb has problems finding work as a pianist — no one wants to listen to jazz in this modern age, and when he tries to get creative in a restaurant one day, to channel out his inner musical instincts, he gets fired on the spot.
Seb eventually receives a job offer for a travelling gig from an old friend. It pays well and allows him to play his piano jazz music, but with one glaring problem. His friend’s band is not traditional jazz. There’s dancing, there’s a bit of pop singing, and there’s a lot of digital instruments used as well.
“Do you like what you’re playing?” Mia asks again. She knows Seb is a strong advocate of classic jazz. Seb even chided her once for asking him to play I Ran at a party, a very popular pop song from the 1980s. He believes that serious musicians should only play “serious” music.
“I thought this is what you wanted?! You wanted me to land a steady job,” Seb eventually retorts, and the discussion quickly erupts into a quarrel.
This is the movie’s most important scene, and it resonated deeply with me. Similar to Seb, I once wanted to be a traditional news writer / reporter for newspapers or magazines. I believed very strongly, almost religiously, in the old-school style of news writing (i.e. inverted pyramid, finding quotes, checking your sources). I absolutely abhorred (and still do, even until today) the modern blog-style of “gutter journalism”, sensationalism, and ineptitude over the command of the English language.
In Singapore, there are two major print publishers: Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp, who are in charge of producing our country’s biggest national dailies, The Straits Times and Today. They also have a slew of magazines and periodicals that are published weekly or monthly. I tried with my might to apply for the publications that suited my knowledge and interests (technology, videogames, current affairs), but each time I got rejected due to some obscure reason totally unrelated to the skill of writing itself. Just like Mia.
Mia is an aspiring actress who is desperately looking for her big breakout role. She auditions frequently during her spare time, she tries to attend parties to expand her network of friends and future supporters of her craft. She’s an excellent actress — in one audition scene she brings herself to the verge of tears over a phone call. She does her research and doesn’t mind watching old movies or different genres to expand her acting repertoire. And yet she gets turned down repeatedly for unknown reasons totally unrelated to her acting.
La La Land’s biggest lesson about following your passions is that: You must be prepared for failure. You must be prepared for rejections, and you must be unafraid of losing. Most important of all, you must be ready to make the occasional compromise. Seb finally accepts his friend’s gig, but only because it would allow him to save up and start his club in the future. It’s not traditional jazz, but so be it. At least he will still be able to play some jazz, even if it is a heavily modified version.
Mia decides to host a solo play in a theatre just for the heck of it, and even if it will leave her in debt. If she can’t land a role in other productions, then why not create her own? The turnout is poor, and she overhears a scathing review from one member of the audience. But by a stroke of luck, a casting director for a movie attended her play and she gets offered a big role.
In the end, Seb and Mia break up amicably after Mia receives the movie offer. They foresee that their time spent so far apart, with both of them travelling on the road for their respective jobs, would create problems in their relationship.
“I will always love you,” the both of them say to each other.
The final Steins;Gate ending sequence of La La Land (for lack of a better description), shows us what happened if Seb and Mia had stayed together and lived happily ever after. And then it snaps back to the current reality where Seb and Mia are still separated. It is technically not a happy ending, and I applaud the film for daring to end on a bittersweet note.
Follow your passions, pursue it, go crazy over it. But you must be prepared for failure, and you must be ready to make big sacrifices. Seb and Mia have fulfilled their dreams after many years, becoming renowned performers. But they had to make one final, ultimate sacrifice to achieve it: each other.
I entered the cinema, once again, completely blind and not knowing what to expect from La La Land. I didn’t even know that it was a musical. All I knew was that it had been nominated for a lot of Oscars this year, and that it stars Ryan Gosling, one of my favourite actors since he was a teenager. Within the first minute, from the moment the singing started, I knew that I was watching something special.
If you told me that in this day and age, a musical would become a strong contender for the Oscars, I would have dismissed it as pretentious lunacy. But perhaps La La Land is trying to teach us one final lesson: Just like music, and just like Mia, you’ll never know what you like until you’ve experienced it first-hand for yourself.