“La La Land” has been one of the most acclaimed movies from 2016, receiving a landslide of awards including 7 Golden Globes and 6 Academy Awards (well, they thought 7 at first).
It currently scores a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critical consensus as: “La La Land breathes new life into a bygone genre with thrillingly assured direction, powerful performances, and an irresistible excess of heart.”
Of course there are some more critical voices, pointing for example at the fact that jazz music was originally “black”, but in the movie its paladin is a white guy. Also, some critics were not impressed by the plot (not hugely original), the maybe too many and too obvious references to the Hollywood golden age classics, or the thin emotional complexity of the main characters.
Regardless of the individual opinions, probably its huge success was also due to the fact that – at a first look – this may feel like the perfect evasion story, very appropriate for a time when America and the world seem to be desperate to receive some good news.
Did I like the movie? Yes, a lot.
Far from being my favourite movie of the year (don’t ask: I don’t know), I loved it. I actually believe that behind its success there is more than an easy pop corn story, a few great acting performances and nice songs.
The story and characters offer some interesting hidden layers of complexity, and in this post I am going to explore them. Sure, it’s not the Hannibal Lecter-kind of complexity, so don’t set your bar impossibly high. Nevertheless – I found enough material to sink my teeth into.
So this is going to be a plot study of “La La Land”, following the structure of The Hero’s Journey. I hope it will be useful for anybody planning to use this material in workshops or lectures. Or simply, if you loved the movie and would like to understand it better.
Ah and a warning: it’s a plot study, so of course there will be spoilers. So don’t read if that’s a problem for you.
Ready? So let’s start with…
There are two main characters in the story: Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling).
However, I am going to build my whole analysis on the fact that Mia is the real protagonist, while Seb fulfills a number of support roles in the story, mainly: guidance, emotional mirror and support.
In fact, right after the spectacular opening sequence
we are introduced to Mia, while we get to see some of Seb’s background after almost 20 minutes of screen time. Simple as that, this is usually a script giveaway of who is the leading character and what is the point of view. We tend to develop a stronger emotional attachment if we get to spend more time with the characters.
So, it’s clear that we are following the adventure from Mia’s point of view, and we get introduced quite early to her challenge: to see her talent recognised.
After yet another audition failed due to bad luck and external circumstances (coffee is spilled on her right before the audition, plus it’s lunch time and the casting crew – “threshold guardians” – just want to go on their break), she is desperate and is considering about quitting her acting career. She goes home and is depressed.
The proverbial “Call” comes in the form of her supportive three flat-mates who literally drag her out of her comfort zone (her desperation and self deprecation) and bring her to the party, because “Someone in the crowd could be the one she needs to know”.
Mia gets convinced, goes to the party, and maybe she doesn’t meet that special someone, but at least she has some good fun. Which doesn’t hurt.
But then, she finds out that her car has been towed away – and that’s the last drop of desperation.
This is a very effective narrative tool: it’s almost an iconic representation of every last bit of support being taken away from her. After all, the car represents shelter, transport and comfort. And who likes to see that their car has been towed away? The audience develops an immediate sympathy for the poor Mia.
She walks home in her sadness, and that’s how she stumbles upon a night club (Lipton’s), attracted by the music in the background that seems to be playing out her mood exactly. That’s how she meets (again) Seb.
An accidental meeting that will change her life. And that’s why, in my reading of the movie, Seb acts mainly as…
At this point we are introduced into his private life and background. We learn that he is completely broke, yet his life is dominated by his passion for the purest for of jazz.
“When are you going to unpack these boxes?” asks his sister.
“When I unpack them in my own club”, is the answer.
Pretty soon we learn about his situation: he is broke, but he doesn’t care much.
His main motivation is: to cultivate his life passion (art, and jazz music in particular), even if at the expense of everything else.
What makes the movie interesting is that Mia and Seb’s stories are intertwined, with each playing different roles in the other’s life.
From this point on, we follow shortly Seb’s point of view: his “misunderstanding” about the musical taste of his boss (his own personal Threshold Guardian, played by the great J.K. Simmons) lead to him losing his job. Again.
And this is a crucial moment for both characters. It’s a crossing of the threshold for both.
After their casual meeting in the opening sequence traffic jam, this is the first real encounter between Mia and Seb. She is struck by his talent and passion for music. This inspiration will be fundamental to support her and lead her to success, which will be one of the main motives of the whole movie.
Seb meets Mia, too. But at this stage she will be nothing more than an annoyance for him, since he is too busy processing the latest bad news.
My point is that, following the hero’s journey narrative, at this point both characters find themselves on the threshold. Meeting Seb and seeing his passion for jazz and lack of compromise, helps Mia to jump into it, and to continue on to…
Cut to some time later. It’s spring time, and we are at a 1980s themed pool party.
And the two meet again. This time it’s Mia who takes the initiative, and my opinion is that she takes the role of a Trickster figure in this stage. She requests “I ran” as a song, in a clear reference to how rude he was during their last meeting. Then she teases and ridicules him.
It works. When they meet again, he is forced to apologise.
Since he is proud and stubborn (the main qualities to which we have been introduced so far), this is the first trace of character development from Seb’s side.
At this point there is a hilarious reference to the Hero’s Journey itself, which I have to mention:
And since it’s delivered as a party pick-up line, by the self-absorbed and pedantic writer Carlo, I take it as a self ironic joke from Chazelle. He obviously knows what he is doing (his first movie, Whiplash, was also a perfect Hero’s Journey), and is also aware of how quickly a story can become cliché. With this meta-reference he is basically saying: I know the canon, and I can play with it. Cool, game on!
These initial conflicts – endearing to the audience, because it’s clear that they can lead to a romantic development – are the beginning of Mia and Seb’s relationship.
As this develops, they get to know each other better, and share dreams and aspirations.
It is at this point that Seb’s nature as The Mentor becomes fully evident.
Well, it couldn’t be MORE evident than this, right?
Then the story goes on and the characters go on developing their relationships along two dimensions: the romantic one between themselves, and the professional one with their artistic dreams.
For Mia, this also requires breaking up with her previous relationship. While at a dinner with her “mister perfect boyfriend”, she realises that she doesn’t want to be there at all.
The trigger is when she hears on the radio the same music that Seb was playing in the bar. Cut to the speaker broadcasting in the room. With an almost subliminal choice, a sign with the red word “EXIT” is just next to it. The message is very effective.
This represents another test on her personal road of trials, and at the same time the passing of another treshold.
So they have their (troubled) date, and love can finally triumph!
This is the beginning of the “Summer” part of the movie. They are happy together, love is in the air, full happiness is served, voilà.
By the way – it is possible to find a full reference to the “Four shields of human nature” model running all along the plot.
At the beginning it’s “winter”,
times are hard and both characters find themselves struggling materially and emotionally.
Then “spring” comes, and that’s a time for new beginnings – new meetings, inspirations, decisions are made.
And in “summer” it’s time to reap the results. The story enters its second act and our characters are happy and in love. All is well, right?
Except this is the moment when Seb meets his own Mentor: represented by his old friend Keith (played by John Legend).
They casually meet in a club, and he presents a business opportunity.
Seb doesn’t drop his mentoring role towards Mia, but in having a relationship with her he finds a new challenge, one his previous life without attachments didn’t prepare him for. Overhearing a conversation between Mia and her mom, he hears the echoes of his own deepest doubts.
She literally speaks out loud his own mind
and in that moment, he realises that being a poor, idealistic dreamer could not be enough anymore. Until that moment, he had been too self absorbed, even obsessed by his quest for artistic purity, to face reality and “grow up”.
So next thing he does, he goes and “gets a job” accepting Keith’s proposal. This may seem as an easy and overused solution, but in plot terms it’s also an important step in Seb’s character development. This is what leads me to believe that Keith takes a real mentoring role for Seb.
Keith offers Seb a job, a way out of his troubles, and opens a gateway to a new world. At the same time, he provokes him: if he crosses the gate, some things will have to change. Is he willing to pay the price?
The full nature of this relationship is revealed in their following conversation, which marks a point of non return for Seb.
At this point, both characters are in the middle of the second act. Mia leaves her job at the cafeteria and dedicates all her time to writing her own play,
while Seb starts a long tour with “the Messengers”.
They are both so absorbed by pursuing their personal dreams, that their relationship falls in the background. He is having a good success with the band, she is investing everything she has in her new project. They barely talk and see each other.
It’s the beginning of “fall”.
Weather-wise, but also metaphorically. A time for doubts, introspection, fear.
Mia misses Seb because he is failing his main function in the story: to be her guide, her mentor.
In my opinion this reveals more than a superficial stereotyped balance of roles. It opens the door to questions like: what happens when our mentors leave to go on their own personal journeys? What if we are not ready? Will we ever be ready?
It’s a moment for Mia to take a very important decision. When Seb asks her to follow him with the band, she doesn’t hesitate. Her answer is clear.
And in return, she asks him “when are you done?”. She realises for the first time that Seb may have his own plans for the future.
And she does not necessarily like it. At this point she openly challenges him:
which sends them straight into the Dark Cave(s). Of their relationship, and of their careers.
The whole sequence takes place in a dark room, originally intended as the setting for a romantic dinner but actually turning into something like a crypt, or a dungeon.
Mia slaps Seb in the face reminding him of the important dream he had at the beginning:
To which Seb reacts in shock, revealing his darkest fears. This dialogue is extremely important and as such it will come back in the ending (Resolution).
Seb faces a deep motivation crisis, he thinks it’s time for him to “grow up” and follow a more realistic career path. Mia is there to remind him that it doesn’t have to be like that, and that he has a special gift: to communicate his passion for jazz, and make other people care for it.
But it’s Fall. And it’s time for them to enter the Dark Cave. As we know, in the cave we have to enter by ourselves. A fire alarm beeps, Mia realises it’s time to go.
and there is nothing left for Seb to say. Fade to black.
In this part of the film the editing choices are also more abrupt, and Chazelle makes more use of abrupt editing cuts and fades to black, to reflect the emotional process of his characters.
As their relationship falls apart, Mia also faces what she thinks is the lowest point in her career, when she finally goes on stage with her personal play – only to face a semi empty theatre
and what is worse, while in the dressing rooms she overhears some less than enthusiastic comments by spectators.
This mechanism, used again, reflects the inner voices that the character is facing in that moment. The overheard comments only reflect her own deepest fears and doubts.
And it’s a common situation, our perception bias that sometimes make us overlook positive feedback, and focus only on the negative messages that we receive.
Overwhelmed, Mia takes the drastic decision to quit her career as aspiring actress, along with the relationship with Seb, and go back to her comfortable safe place underground. It’s the quintessential Dark Cave.
And my goodness, how many times did I think exactly the same thing.
With this literal “I am going back home” comes the last part of Mia’s hero’s journey. Not all is lost. It seems that, during her solo performance, after all “someone in the crowd” did notice her. It’s The well deserved Reward, finally!
Seb gets the phone call, and once again takes the role of the messenger (the “Herald”) to deliver this new call.
Because as I have written sometimes before, the return sometimes is even more demanding than the first part of the journey. After all, it’s going uphill.
It’s the moment when all the lessons, all the experience acquired in the previous parts of the adventure will come to the test. Mia faces one last hesitation, the strongest of all.
Which by the way is exactly the same process that Seb experienced earlier in the story. She doubts her own talent – it’s a classic “maybe I am not good enough” moment. The Refusal of the Call.
But Seb this time doesn’t let it slide.
They go to the audition and Mia really gives it everything she has got. The test is hard, sure
but she finds hidden resources and maybe with the strenght that comes from true desperation, she nails it with an incredible performance.
Cheesy? Some critics think that this is a little too much a “Hollywood celebrating itself” kind of deal.
For one artist who successfully makes it, the road is paved by the sweat and tears of the tens of thousands who didn’t, and had to pay the price of failure with their time, personal life, financial resources.
I personally find the message of the movie authentic. For me, it’s solid. And the real reason for it becomes clear at the ending.
Mia asks Seb:
and this time, he has a plan too.
It’s the Death and Rebirth stage, symbolised by the sentence:
Something has changed for them both. Seb has a solid life plan, and Mia has learned that art needs total dedication, and a bit of crazyness. Her journey is over. It’s time for the mentor to leave the stage.
A full cycle is complete. Another winter comes. Five years later.
Mia walks into a cafeteria. Maybe it’s even the same place where she used to work as a waiter. But now it’s her time to leave the customers star-struck.
Things have changed for our protagonists. Mia is a movie celebrity, lives in a mansion, has her own family, a beautiful baby girl.
And Seb isn’t doing so bad either. He has his own jazz club, hosts top class musicians. He has finally unpacked his boxes.
And then they meet again.
This is the sucker punch moment of the movie. Until this point, the whole thing could have gone down easily as a carefree musical, feel good consolatory comedy repeating once again (to itself and to us) the Hollywood mantra “work hard, and sooner or later success will come”.
But this is when everything changes. Seb can barely look into her eyes,
sits at the piano and lets music talk for him.
Mia is just there, taken aback. In a long sequence she sees – as in a movie, we would say with another meta-reflection – how her life would have played out, “if”… if things with him had gone a different way.
The breathtaking montage brings the audience back at the beginning, to the moment of their first meeting, and with a sequence of fast, powerful images Mia follows all the stages of a possible happy life with Seb, centred on their relationship.
Once again, Mia doesn’t compromise anything. It’s Seb who takes different choices. We are living Mia’s fantasies.
Seb just remains loyal in his perpetually supporting role. He rejects Keith’s offer
is always by her side in every crucial moment,
takes her to the audition,
and finally moves to Paris with her, then back to Los Angeles.
By now, it’s completely clear that for the whole time we have been following the story from Mia’s point of view.
And this is how the story ends, with the perspective of this gigantic “What if…” that leaves her with tears in her eyes, and the audience with a lump in their stomach. It’s a perfect Resolution.
Because at the end that’s the meaning of the whole story, and it’s how Mia’s “hero’s journey” is concluded. A journey is made of choices, and in particular the road to success is paved with tears and sacrifices.
Especially in this light, success in the show business (maybe, success – period) is represented as a self-centred process of growth, and in order to realise it some other very important things are lost. Maybe, including true love and happiness.
And who knows? Seems to think Mia. Maybe it’s all been for the better. Or not.
What is more important? Family or career? Love or art? What is the purpose of my life, and what is the impact I want to leave after me? What will be my legacy?
Anyway, life goes on, and we have no alternative than to go with it. Our memories, and the people who – for better or worse – helped us to become who we are, remain part of us. Of our story.
All the rest, including dealing with the mess we make, will be for us only. While we smile, sometimes bitterly, and we whisper with Mia “we should go”. On to the next journey.
With just a gentle nod, Seb seems to acknowledge all this, and reassures her that tomorrow, after all, will be “Another Day of Sun”.
Wow! What a story this turned out to be!
I hope I did a fair service to what I think is a very complex story, much much more than the common stereotypical Hollywood feel-good flick.
I will use this material next week in a training course on storytelling and story developement, and that’s why I decided to write it and post it online.
This is not a superficial story. The movie touches some very deep, universal keys and left me with a strong emotional impression.
Even when I re-watched it (and again, and again) to write this post it always moved me and surprised me with little details and nuances I didn’t notice the previous times. I think this partially explains the huge success it had.
And you? Do you agree with my analysis? Did I miss anything relevant? Feel free to comment and engage in the comments section, and if you liked this post, explore the other sections of the blog and don’t forget to follow us on facebook!