Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Riske Business: About That La La Land Ending...

by Adam Riske
I have a theory. SPOILER warning, obviously.

I fully admit that I might be reading into this based on personal experience, but I think the whole fantasy sequence at the end of La La Land is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) realizing he was chasing the wrong dream. Mia (Emma Stone) was his avenue to life-long happiness and the jazz club he dreamed of opening (and does at the end of La La Land) is no longer his self-actualization. Remember way back when on the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace podcast where Patrick described George Lucas as being trapped in a Star Wars cage? I think Sebastian’s jazz club, affectionately named “Seb’s” for Mia (complete with a music note as the apostrophe), is Sebastian’s Mia cage.

Truth be told, I don’t know if Mia and Sebastian could have ever worked long-term. It’s obvious that they love each other and will think of the other fondly for the rest of their lives. However, using the structure of the four seasons of their romance, a lot happened. It might have been one of those super passionate loves that burns hot and flames out quickly. I think a reason for this is because (at heart) Mia is a revolutionary (e.g. she left Boulder City, she went for a big dream) and Sebastian is a traditionalist (i.e. he refuses to leave L.A., his dream is to revere jazz of the past). Mia is forward-thinking and Sebastian is not and he realizes that he probably should have been even though he’s (most likely) too late.
I think it’s telling that Sebastian isn’t seen in a relationship at the end of the movie. There’s ample opportunity to hint that he is, so much so that since they don’t it infers he hasn’t moved on. The giant wall advertisement for Mia’s next movie (or something she’s promoting) being on the side of the Seb’s building is also an interesting visual motif; she’s a cloud hanging over his whole life. He also comments to the other piano player in the “Five Years Later” sequence that “pretty good is great!” when the guy tells Sebastian that the club is doing pretty good. It hints that Sebastian is usually not “pretty good,” otherwise “pretty good” wouldn’t be “great.” Lastly, I don’t think the holiday card with Sebastian’s sister, her husband and his nephew being shown is a mistake. Within the sequence, it establishes quickly what happened to those characters, but they’re so slight in the grand scheme of the story that I think it’s more to give another clue that it’s what Sebastian really wants.

When Sebastian sees Mia as she comes into his club with her husband and plays Sebastian and Mia’s song, that sets off the phenomenal fantasy sequence, which is like Sebastian’s heart bleeding out for Mia to see.

• He grabs her and kisses her instead of brushing her off in the piano bar.

• Sebastian rebuffs Keith (John Legend) and doesn’t join his jazz fusion band, thus eliminating the choice he’ll have to make later of not going to Mia’s play and staying for the band’s photo shoot.

• Sebastian goes with Mia to Paris, plays at a jazz club there while Mia is groomed for stardom. The jazz club is seen as bright and lively as compared to “Seb’s,” which is darker and less vivacious.

• He imagines them married and with a family and super affectionate on a date night at the jazz club - - with someone else playing the piano. He seems happy. The jazz, while important, is not as important to him as Mia is. It still seems like Mia achieved her dream, too. It just goes to show you how delicate our lives can be based on a set of a few choices.
I love how the final shots of the movie recall Casablanca (i.e. “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”) and I can easily see Mia and Sebastian getting back together even if it’s much more poetic that they do not. After all, they’re in the same town again, they are still making “do me” eyes at each other and she just has Tom Everett Scott as an obstacle. That’s no knock on Tom Everett Scott’s character. He seems like a decent guy BUT so was her boyfriend that she ran out on to meet up with Gosling for Rebel Without a Cause. Girl’s got heartbreaking in her bones. Gosling put it out there in his piano tribute to Mia and the ball is in her court.

In closing, this is just one theory I had. You could read this movie in a number of different ways (e.g. it’s a more realistic/modern take on the “happily ever after” traditional romantic musical, it’s a statement about sacrifices needing to be made to chase your ultimate dream and how bittersweet that can be, it’s about how timing is just as important as anything in a relationship etc.) which is one of many, many reasons it’s an incredible movie.


  1. I really like your points about the ending. I've thought about the ending a lot after seeing the movie three times now, but I always came to the conclusion that it's open to interpretation, which it is, but you say some things I haven't thought of before.

    The main thing you bring up that was new to me was the poster of Mia outside. I always took that as a way to tell us that she made it, but we have the coffee shop scene for that. I think that really makes it obvious that Seb is happy with his club, but he realizes Mia was what he was really looking for. If the club really was his ultimate dream, he still would have called it Chicken on a Stick.

    I also assumed before that Mia was having the fantasy, but that's definitely Seb we're seeing it through or she wouldn't have left and this would be the dinner with Greg all over again.

    My rough thoughts on the ending basically conclude that happiness is subjective, easy to miss, and possible to find again. I think Seb is happy with his club, but he obviously hasn't found new happiness the way that Mia did with the new guy. Ultimately, there probably isn't one 'right' way to interpret this ending, and I know that it has changed based on the mood I'm in when I see it. Great thoughts nonetheless!

  2. I love the thought put into your interpretation. I've only seen the film once, and what struck me then and stayed with me was that it is more acceptance and growth coming out of the number than putting the ball in her court. The song/fantasy is the idealization, what coulda or shoulda been, but those are just fantasy. For all of us, what coulda been is always much more idealized than what really happened.

    And even though they aren't together when the song comes back to reality, Seb (and Mia as well) is doing pretty good, and pretty good is GREAT. That is true adulthood and growth, the acceptance that while all the other things that could have happened might have been nice, it's still an idealization and doesn't change where you are, or the meaning/impact of who and what got you there. They truly helped build each other up, and nothing can change that.

  3. I love your interpretation! I took this dream sequence much more personally, as it hit very close to home, the woman I loved married someone else, had his child and disappeared from my life. I sobbed uncontrollably the first time I saw this, because the "what if" factor of the fantasy was very real to me. On a brighter note, my love came back into my life a few months ago, divorced and ready to commit to me, so I actually have hope that Mia and Sebastian will ultimately be together again... just like Tom and Lainie!

    1. Your story is great but your version of that story's continuation beyond the movie is bunk :P. No way are we supposed to want to break up that family - Seb and Mia are done, son!

    2. You can read the ending any way you want, Sol.

  4. The ending of this movie is magic. What a great way to dramatize the emotion that Sebastian pours into the playing of that song. I mean, he puts all of himself into those ivories, all his dreams and regrets; everything.

    And Mia knows. She knows what he's doing with that song, she's transfixed. It's his alternate-reality flashback, but she can see it too.

    Which is followed by a mutual understanding. The shared look that says, "it's okay." It's okay that it ended up this way. We're both okay and we're going to be fine.

    I agree his fantasy indicates he thinks he chased the wrong dream. This could also be a "grass is greener" reaction. Imagine a version of this movie where the fantasy had been the reality. Maybe 5 years later he would be fantasizing about that club he always wanted to own? I don't know what Seb learned, but as a movie-goer I learned to count my blessings. There will always be that other path I didn't travel, but the one I'm on is pretty good. No, it's great.

    1. Okay, this interpretation makes me feel a little better.

    2. I don't know that it's necessarily that he feels he chased the wrong dream. He let her go more for her sake than his and says as much when he tells her that when she gets that part she's going to need to put everything she has into it.

      There's absolutely some regret there and the final number is an interesting look at how changing a few pivotal moments could have changed how things turned out, but would it have really? Sebastian and Mia pushed each other to follow their dreams and it's hard to see a situation where he'd be willing to be a potential distraction to her emerging career and where she'd be willing to have him put his dreams on hold so he could follow her to another country. It's easy for us to look back and romanticize what might have been if we had taken another path but ultimately we'll never know how things might have actually turned out.

      While the movie leaves us with a gut-punching seqeunce showing us in explicitly bitter-sweet detail the regret of "the one that got away" I think we are able to take some solace in the fact that they both achieved their dreams, and even if they didn't do it together, they did it because of one another.

  5. Finally saw this - I really loved it, but I must've interpreted the same way you did, Riske, because I haven't been able to shake the sad feeling the ending left me with. I guess that little smile they exchange at the end could be taken to mean that everything worked out the way it was supposed and they were both happy but I definitely feel Seb is a man with regrets and during that final number he was imagining correcting every misstep he made during that final number that could have led him to true love and happiness. Poor fucker.