I have now seen La La Land several times, most recently getting my wife to sit with me and watch it. At the end, she remarked “I don’t like that!”, to which I smirked and asked if she meant the whole movie or just the ending and she said she liked the movie, but not the ending because (spoilers) they don’t end up together. This is sort of a tragic ending, but in initial presentations it is more complicated than that. After all, Sebastian gets his club, Mia is a star, and they both seem to have pretty good lives. “Pretty good is doing great” remarks Sebastian near the end of the film as he leaves his club before it opens for the night. La La Land is a musical, a romantic comedy, a light drama, but its power comes from the fact that it is a classic tragedy before it is anything else.
There is a lot going on in this movie which is why it so interesting and at some level polarizing, and that comes from the way it tells several stories at the same time. Overall the story follows the ‘love letter to Hollywood’ formula, Mia follows what should be a pretty standard rom-com arc, but Sebastian is the foil for both tropes, because his story is one of unapologetic tragedy.
When we meet him, he is frustrated and intense, and clearly in love with one thing, his dream. As we get to know him he is unwavering, and right from the first moment he is in the night club at Christmas we are presented with evidence that he just can’t help himself but perform his music. He loses his gig, and brushes off the girl because the only thing that matters is his music. He can see no compromise in this pursuit. Throughout the rest of the movie, him and Mia literally and figuratively dance around each other’s lives, simultaneously but not equitably. We see Mia dance to his music at the bar, sing to his music at his apartment, and learn to genuinely love the music he is so passionate about. Other than one cut away scene of a single practice, he never watches her acting or perform, other than when it is to his lead.
Where this comes to a head is the moment where they fight over dinner, you can see the fall on full display (it’s even on the title card). Mia can see a path that includes both pursuing their passionate dreams while remaining together, and he simply cannot. He views his whole life as a compromise to make her happy, and while he is willing to make that sacrifice, he is getting no joy out of it. He clearly states that he is doing what he thinks she wants. When he misses her play, and she returns home, he could go find her, follow her, make a Say Anything type plea for their relationship, but he doesn’t. I think the story makes it clear, he does love her, that’s true, but it is a love that will always be secondary to his need to fulfill his dream. So, it is not his longing for Mia that sends him off to find her, it is a call from a casting director. That’s key. It’s not love, its passion for the goal. He can imagine life going on without Mia, but he couldn’t forgive himself if he didn’t give her the chance to fulfill her lifelong dream.
Finally, the end of this movie is where Sebastian’s arc is both revealed and resolved. We see Mia married to someone else, with a child she is head over heels for, all the stardom she could want, living in a beautiful home in LA. Throughout the whole movie, she demonstrated she could balance it all, and that is the ending she gets. That is one of the movies that plays alongside La La Land, the standard romantic comedy about the young star struck actress who finds love, falters, and ultimately reconciles with said love. We are not treated to that movie because Mia runs headlong into the tragic Sebastian. In the final montage, which is beautiful and amazingly written and choreographed, we see Sebastian, now the successful owner of his own club but still romantically alone, gently ease into a memory of when him and Mia first met.
From that moment it all changes, and what he envisions in all its cinematic brilliance is Mia’s movie. It’s fun and fast and exciting and they are both happy and it is what we all wanted to happen at the end. It is, however, a decidedly different movie that includes him not following his dream, not being 100% committed all the time, and ends with him not owning his own club, but rather sitting in the audience watching, just like everyone else. As he eases out of this dream with the same haunting melancholy melody he entered it with, it all becomes clear. For Mia, it was always all possible, but this isn’t Mia’s story after all. It is Sebastian’s, and for him, it simply was never all possible. He can’t see, even now at the end, a path that would have resolved with him finding his dream and getting the girl. As Mia’s Aunt explains in the near final song ‘Audition’:
“A bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it lead us? And that’s why they need us.”
She might as well have been singing about Sebastian who throughout the whole movie brings color and madness and opens her eyes to the possibilities she otherwise wouldn’t have seen.