|Original caricature by Jeff York of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND. (copyright 2016)|
(WARNING: This post contains major movie spoilers. Read with caution.)
Without question, cinema has the power to devastate. Some of the most vivid movie memories are those films with an ending that leaves us shaking, crying, or troubled for days. Think of the movies that drove you to tears, broke your heart, or left you unable to sleep. It could be Marley dying at the veterinarian’s office, or Katie touching Hubbell’s hair one last time, or Jake Gittes failing to understand once again how tragic things happen to those who venture into Chinatown. This year, a new movie joins such a storied list of films that devastate...and believe it or not, it’s a musical.
Wait a minute, musicals are supposed to be happy, right? They’re meant to get your toes tapping and ensure you leave the theater humming. Well, that may be true most of the time, but plenty of stories put to song are filled with plenty of pathos too. LES MISERABLES kills off just about every one of its cast of characters by the final reel. In FUNNY GIRL, Fanny Brice doesn’t end up with Nicky Arnstein, even though she worked so hard at getting him back it wasn’t even, well, funny. And did anyone expect a French musical like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG from the turbulent 1960’s to end on a happy note? Mais non! Not when Michel Legrand’s score cues the melancholy from his opening bars. No, musicals often leave a residue of angst, and if you’ve seen ALL THAT JAZZ, CABARET or even OLIVER, you know what I’m talking about.
Thus, it is with this year as the musical LA LA LAND devastates in its way as well. (Again, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to jump off here.) Written and directed by Damien Chazelle of WHIPLASH fame, it is a film that is fun and fizzy, yet amazingly devastating in its final analysis. The story concerns two artists trying to make it in Hollywood. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to play jazz. They become involved with each other and their love story veers back and forth between scenes that are grounded and scenes that are pure flights of fancy. The scenes that are fantastical are the musical numbers in the film and their singing and dancing together personify their feelings of love for each other or their dreams of success in Tinseltown.
The music in these scenes is incredible as it advances the storytelling and manages to do so with distinct melodies that are instantly hummable and lyrics that are smart and tight. As Mia and Sebastian dance together in synch, often in one take, and sing to each other, we realize that this is Chazelle’s way of showing them living the dream. It’s not what they’d say or do, of course, but rather how they feel. The fantasy is from their hearts, just as the musical numbers in the movie CHICAGO were Roxie Hart’s way of imagining her life as a staged vaudeville show.
But Chazelle does something rather profound with his fantasy scenes here, and he is consistent in treating them in this way throughout the film. He starts off a scene grounded and then lets it veer into fantasy. He shows the normal, like Mia and her roommates getting ready to go to a party, and then as the music enters, the choreography begins, and they start singing in rhyme, the scene turns into a movie musical’s expression of their exuberance. It’s what happens in almost every movie musical ever, and it happens here too. That isn’t the exceptional part.
What is exceptional is how the musical numbers will themselves into the characters’ reality. When her roomies sing about how “Someone in the Crowd” could be the one that picks her up off the ground and helps her with her goal to become a star, that happens. It’s Sebastian whom she meets and he will become her muse, her lover and be the one who'll cajole her into putting her neck out on the line and commit to her dreams. When Mia and Sebastian visit the Los Angeles observatory on their first date, and their love for each other starts to buoy them, they literally lift off the ground together. Their love is "taking flight." Soon, they’re dancing among the stars, lost in their idealized fantasy sequence. (Who doesn’t feel that way when first falling for another?)
This kind of willing into reality happens most significantly when Mia lands a big audition for a movie role that will happen in Paris. The star makers ask her to simply tell them a compelling story, rather than read pages from a script. What she tells them about is her artistically-minded aunt and as she gets deeper into the story, she starts to sing it and it turns into a spotlighted musical number. The musical salute “The Fools Who Dream” is not only the movie’s best song but it is Mia's (and Sebastian's) motto in its way. The song tells of how artists and dreamers take risks and achieve greatness, but it's a messy process. And indeed, those are the movie’s most telling words being foreshadowed right there. Mia nails the audition. And like the other musical numbers in the film, it starts grounded, veers into a fantastical presentation, and ends up becoming her reality as she gets the part. Mia will ultimately fly to Paris and becomes a big star.
Sebastian will not go with her. He will stay back in LA to pursue his own dreams of owning a jazz club. Then, the film flashes forward to five years later for its final scenes. Mia shows up in LA and she's now a big star. And she's married, with a child, but the man of her new dreams is not Sebastian. They drifted apart after she left and they both moved on with their separate lives.
When she and her husband return to Los Angeles, they go out for a night on the town and stumble across a buzzy nightclub. It turns out to be Sebastian’s wildly successful jazz club, of course. They enter, even though Mia is hesitant as she realizes whose club it is, not sure of what she'll find or how she'll feel when she sees Sebastian after all these years. But she seems him in his element, loving what he's doing, and she is thrilled that he is living his dream too. But then when he sees her, with another man, the life that could have been with each other is shown.
Again, Chazelle starts with a scene grounded in reality, and then it veers into fantasy. And what a fantasy it is! Chazelle has his star-crossed lovers dance and prance through scenes that recreate their history together and show what should have occurred with them staying together. In the fantasy musical number, the sets become more tableau and theatrical, and it whisks you up with these two.
Sebastian then follows Mia to Paris, rather than stay behind to pursue his dreams separately, and he opens up his jazz club in France instead. They're together, married, and they are the ones who have the child together. It's a musical denouement that we're led to believe will somehow be what really happened, especially since all the other musical numbers point in that direction. Chazelle has started real, veered into the fantastical, and somehow what is being sung and danced about becomes the next reality in Mia's or Sebastian's life. Right?
Nope. Not this time.
This time the fantasy comes full circle and Mia isn't with Sebastian. Instead, she's with the man we saw upon her return to LA. It's the one time Chazelle returns to utter reality, one not willed by fantasy. It's tremendously shrewd to do so and such a different way to play at the very end. It is brilliant. And it is utterly devastating.
The crushing reality of Sebastian and Mia realizing their personal goals, but not with each other by their side, is what we're left with. No happy ending this time. Instead, the film achieves one of the greatest rug pulls in movie history and lands an emotional gut punch like few others have ever done in a musical, easily equally the gas station finale of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG or Jessica Lange's Angel of Death finally planting a kiss on the lips of Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon at the end of ALL THAT JAZZ. Sebastian has lost Mia. Fantasy is nice, but in LA LA LAND, it's not always reality. Not at the very end of it all.
LA LA LAND is an enormously engaging movie, with characters we care about, beautiful music and production values, and a sense of magic throughout, but at the very end we're reminded that not all dreams can be fulfilled. Being an artist is indeed messy.
It seems, more often than not, that the best love stories end unhappily, with some form of devastation. Rhett & Scarlett. Rick and Ilsa. Maria and Tony. And now Mia and Sebastian. But the ending here makes this amazing film only greater. It's a film about living in “La La Land”, shorthand for a world that is filled with wishful thinking that foolishly ignoring the harsh realities in the world. Chazelle's film is one that is truly brilliant, profound in its lessons, sure to win a ton of Oscars, and an experience that will haunt you for a very long time.