La La Land & the break-up letter with Old Hollywood

SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen La La Land yet!

Many, including myself, described La La Land in their reviews as a “love-letter to Old Hollywood”, and indeed on the one hand it is. It is a glowing and heartfelt love-letter to Tinseltown; its stylised romantic whimsy, vibrant colour palette, and aesthetics deliberately reminiscent of the films of yesteryear. It takes its cues from the old-fashioned Hollywood romances that we know and love, but yet it is also somewhat of a break-up letter with Hollywood; an unceremonious dumping via text if you will, as it admits rather sadly, it’s not you, it’s me. 


La La Land is deliberately presented in the style of an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, so it is fair that the somewhat “bittersweet” ending has caught a few people unawares. The film does however litter cues throughout that this isn’t quite going to have the fairy-tale ending you’re expecting, but this is what I feel elevates La La Land beyond a mere romantic tale, to one of masterpiece status.

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The tap dance scene between Mia and Sebastian, which harks back to the great song and dance numbers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, has become somewhat iconic. Throughout the scene, you’re swept away in its old-fashioned stylings, forgetting for a few brief minutes that this is a film set in the modern day. And then suddenly the moment is interrupted with that all too familiar sound of an iPhone ringing, and yet as you look around the theatre for that inconsiderate so-and-so that has forgotten to turn their phones off, you realise that actually it is coming from the movie, bringing you crashing back down to earth. It’s a charming and funny moment undoubtedly, but also something of a representation of the fact that Hollywood romanticism maybe just can’t exist in this modern setting, with all its noise, interruptions and jostling aspirations. 


A theme running throughout La La Land is that of a dying art form, something which arguably the film represents as well with its retro aesthetics, but it is something which is acknowledged within the film itself. Jazz not only makes for a wonderful soundtrack, but the fact that Seb is a Jazz musician is very important as well, himself describing it as something which is “dying”. The struggles the free expression of Jazz has in competing against modern music are evident. The club Seb has his heart set on, a place rich in Jazz history, has become a samba & tapas place, a shameless cash-grab if you will, with barely a thought to the music which once helped it to thrive. Seb’s musician friend Keith comes from a Jazz background but he acknowledges it is something which must move forward and change, an ideology which clashes with Seb’s traditionalism, but one which he begrudgingly accepts could be the only way to save the dying art form he holds so dear.

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Similarly, we see Seb and Mia go on a date to an old-fashioned cinema showing Rebel Without a Cause, but later we see that sadly the “Rialto” has closed down; yet another remnant of the past unable to thrive in the modern world of blockbusters and multiplexes. An unfortunate sign of the times. Jazz as the dying form of music, and the suggestions also that the art of cinema is on its last legs are key ideas explored throughout La La Land, the balance between past and present, and the struggles the “old ways” have in surviving in a modern world. 


The one glimmer of hope for fans of the happy ending is Mia. Inspired to become an actress after watching old Hollywood movies with her aunt, she suffers setbacks for sure, but ultimately she achieves her dream. It is however at the expense of that “happily ever after” ending with Seb, that the film could’ve so easily given us. Whilst Mia does get her happy ending, it doesn’t happen in the way we might expect. We see the “Hollywood” ending in the form of the beautifully heartbreaking epilogue scene, but La La Land for all its fantastical and dreamlike elements, reminds us that this is the modern world, and life isn’t always going to be like the movies. It is easy to forget that it does have a happy ending; both Mia and Sebastian achieve their dreams, although it is at the expense of their romance. The fools who dream cannot be fools in love as well.

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For me, this is the reason La La Land is so perfect. With the obvious “happy” ending, it would’ve been like every other Hollywood film we’ve seen countless times over, but with this gloriously bittersweet ending, La La Land dares to do something different. It pays tribute to its rich and wonderful history, the old movies which inspired it, and the old-fashioned ideals of romance, but yet it ends remarkably grounded in reality. Life isn’t always like the movies, and I am thankful that movies like La La Land are bold enough to admit this. 
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3 comments

  1. I like what you have written. I wasn’t that worried about not getting the happy ending, it’s more that the reveal felt quite brutal. Mia and Seb got five years to get their head around the situation, but the audience just get ‘Five years later’ and then the poignant/right in the feels epilogue. There’s also so much going on in Mia’s look with Seb – a lost love, the difference he made in her life, what might have been, what could never be, the passage of time, the finality of the parting. The music works really well in that respect – music stirring melancholia/nostalgia. I felt I wanted to sit down with Mia and just check that everything was okay.

    Liked by 1 person

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