The following post contains my thoughts based on a single watch of La La Land. I’ve come to these conclusions through my understanding of story and character. I don’t claim to know what the director intended. This is all speculation and the thoughts I had as to the message of the film.
There will be spoilers for the movie, so if you haven’t seen La La Land, do not read this.
As soon as La La Land ended, I found myself puzzled. The ending was beautiful, tragic, and deeply moving. But what did it mean? What was the director trying to communicate?
As with all stories, to really know what it is about, you need to examine the ending. So I thought back on the sequence that showed Mia and Sebastian in an alternate timeline. The first question I asked myself was “whose vision is this? Hers? His? Both of them?” I believe now that it was in Mia’s mind, because it included several details that Sebastian wouldn’t have known (like how she and her husband pulled off the crowded highway and found the club.)
So, okay, let’s assume this is Mia’s dream sequence. All throughout the film, the movie seemed to be singing the praises of “follow your dreams” and “don’t give up!” But that didn’t seem to be the case in the dream sequence at the end. The alternate story/vision seemed to show Mia (Emma Stone) having basically the same life and getting her dream, but the life of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) took a different direction. He went with her to Paris, was her husband, a father, and didn’t seem to own that club he always wanted.
Something didn’t fit. Why does she imagine him having to give up his dream but not her? So I went back to look at all the differences in the sequence.
The first difference from what we saw in the movie to what we see in the vision takes place back at that restaurant where Sebastian is required to play Christmas songs. In this version, he chooses to kiss her instead of rudely brushing by when she tells him that she liked his playing.
This may seem like a silly, romantic, and inconsequential addition, but I argue that this is crucial to understanding Sebastian’s character. In fact, I believe it’s the key to unlocking the ending and the message of the movie.
I can’t say if this is what the director intended, but I think that the arc of Sebastian’s character shows us what happens when one is consumed by the desire to be loved by people.
In the original/real timeline, Sebastian brushes past her and leaves the restaurant because he is angry. But, why? Obviously, he’s angry that he lost his job. But I think the thing that makes him the angriest is that the crowd didn’t appreciate his music. (He even says something like “No one even cares what I play,” to the guy who hired him, showing his distain toward their ignorance and lack of appreciation of his art.) One woman coming in off the street wasn’t enough for him.
Playing here, in this restaurant, was his job. He could have played the Christmas tunes with joy in his heart, as a way to love the people there. Instead, he despised the simple Christmas melodies and the way he played them reflected his indifference/mockery. Even though he didn’t have freedom to choose the songs, I believe that he probably had the freedom to play them anyway he wanted (the boss said “play the set list” and told him not to play the improvised jazz stuff.) I think Sebastian probably could have played those Christmas songs in a more artistic and jazzy way. For that job, he was required to stick to the set list, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make them jazzy.
Because his heart was so full of distain toward the music, and the people who tolerated it, he decided to go and do his own thing. He returned to the jazz he loved and played something quite beautiful. And no one seemed to care. Everyone in the restaurant just stared at him, then resumed eating. I think this is what made him the angriest.
But then Mia walks in. And she says that she loved the music and that it called to her from off the street. That should have brought him joy. At last, someone appreciated it! Someone listened! But no. His pride was hurt. What is the love of one person compared to the majority who didn’t care?
Contrast this to Mia. In her story, her pursuit of acting is more pure. She doesn’t do it because she cares about the love and worship of the people. No, she pursues it because she just loves acting. She loves acting so much that she works at a coffee shop on a Hollywood lot just to be near it. Later, she quits her job, stops going to auditions, and puts on a one-woman show. She doesn’t do this for all the money and the crowds. She does it for her. (Of course, there is a moment after the play is done where she overhears some criticism, and it’s revealed that deep down she really does care what people thought of her acting. But, remember, it was the act of caring about their opinions that caused her to give up and run away back home, thereby reinforcing my argument that the movie is saying that the desire to please people with art is a bad thing.)
Back to Sebastian. When he overhears Mia talking with her mom on the phone, and her mom seems to be judging his lack of fame, he decides to go and take the job playing piano for “the Messengers” band (something he initially claims to hate because it’s not classic or traditional.) But when we see him on stage later in the movie, playing to a concert full of people, he seems to be okay with it. Worse, when he gets a solo, and the crowd screams and goes crazy for it, we see an expression of pride on his face. In this moment, for the first time in the film, he is getting the love of people for his ability and talent. Mia sees this, and that is why her expression is one of sadness and confusion.
All of this culminates in the dinner fight. Sebastian returns home from tour to cook her a meal. And a fight breaks out. In that fight, he says something about how she must have looked down on him when they first met, and that’s why she agreed to date him. I believe this line is a projection of his own heart, revealing the way Sebastian felt about Mia. He is the one who looked down on her (and if you go back, you can see how he mocks her acting ambitions when he first finds out she works on the lot as a barista and hasn’t been in anything.)
So what does all of this mean for Mia’s alternate reality vision?
I don’t think the point of it was to show that Sebastian had to give up his dream to be with her. I think it was about him giving up the desire to be loved by people. In that alternate vision, we needed to see what Sebastian’s life would have looked like if he hadn’t been so obsessed with the love of people. If he’d appreciated that Mia liked his music when she first walked into the restaurant, everything would have been different. If he had truly just pursued music for the joy of it, and been happy to have blessed even one person, then he could have had a life with her. And it would have been a good life. He’d have gone with her and played jazz at a club in Paris. He’d have had a family. He’d have been happy. Truly happy. Just look at him in those shots. Every scene with him shows him smiling more than we’d seen all movie. He’s full of true joy in that alternate world, not pride.
At the conclusion, when Sebastian finishes his song and Mia’s dream sequence ends, everyone in the club claps for him. Everyone but Mia. She doesn’t clap, stand up to greet him and congratulate him on getting here, or do anything at all to show that she’s happy for him. That’s because she’s not. She’s sad. She leave’s with her husband and gives Sebastian one last look. In it, we see her sadness. She knows what could have been if only he’d done things differently. And he knows it too. He got his club, has the praise of people, and achieved what he wanted. But he’s alone. That’s why he looks so sad as soon as he spots her in the crowd. His charm crumbles in that moment, and he’s confronted with the reality he’s tried to ignore.
There’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence in your art, but you shouldn’t use that excellence to try and gain the love of people. In doing so, you may get what you wanted, but you’ll end up alone, because the love of people can never fulfill your deepest longing.