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Warning: This piece is one big, fat spoiler. Sorry. Go see the movie, it’s great!
The movie La La Land begins with a two-song introduction to the mindset of young nobodies who go to Hollywood, dreaming of making it big. “Someone in the Crowd” says “Do what you gotta do until someone notices you.” We’re introduced to two characters who are doing exactly that, with no evidence of success. Mia is an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop on a movie lot. Sebastian is a pianist with dreams of revitalizing jazz music. In the meantime, he plays humiliating gigs of trite Christmas carols and an 80s cover band.
As their relationship deepens, they encourage each other toward success. Sebastian encourages Mia to not only write a play but to self-produce her one-woman show at a local theater. Mia encourages Sebastian toward his dream of opening a jazz club and suggests a few revisions. However, Sebastian joins a pop band led by an old friend and Mia’s show flops.
The relationship between Mia and Sebastian is mostly predictable: they begin as failures but encourage each other toward success. By the time they both begin to taste success, they become aware that their relationship is at an end. Recall the second song’s lyric “do what you gotta do.” They had worked themselves out of their relationship. It’s hard to know whether they prioritized success over their relationship or success itself undermined their relationship.
Five years later, Mia and her husband stumble into Sebastian’s new jazz club – with all the changes she had suggested years before. Sebastian, playing emcee for the night, spots Mia, sits at the piano, and plays the song that had been the theme for their relationship throughout the movie.
While Sebastian plays, we are flown through a version of life in which their relationship continued and they married and had a child and were both successful though not exactly in the same way as the movie had depicted. It is the most unconventional moment in the movie and a familiar dilemma for millennials today. If success requires absolute devotion, what room is there in your life for anyone else? If your disenchantment with the possibility of meaning-giving relationships turns out to be wrong, what consolation can success provide? These are disturbing questions that haunt and for which, so far, our world offers no answers.
The profoundly sad moment of “La La Land” is when Mia realizes, in either regret or horror, that she was not forced to sacrifice her relationship with Sebastian for the sake of success. Instead, she was simply unable to imagine the possibility of reaching success while also maintaining their relationship.
After watching the blossoming of a positive relationship and its demise brought about by success, Mia and Sebastian are faced – in a moment of true tragedy – with the possibility that it didn’t have to be that way.
When young people have early successes, they have few relationships and little to no responsibilities to a family. Their experience teaches them that success is the product of an unobstructed and obsessed work ethic. The success stories embedded in our culture validate that experience and seal the deal for our understanding of what success demands from us. This simplistic sequence doesn’t exclude alternative scenarios for success, it simply does not include them and thus appears to be absolute.
In our competitive society, the rewards apparently go to those who obsessively game out scenarios, make superior calculations of risk, and ultimately play to win. At least, that’s what we tell each other and ourselves. Where imagination and creativity fits into this way of life is unclear. Often it is jettisoned as an inefficient and costly distraction. Unlike Mia’s realization in the club, the potential futures we have lost may never be known.