“The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life, the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits…Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle. Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.” -Kendrick Lamar (Mortal Man)
La La Land is the story of a girl and a boy. The girl is a barista who aspires to be an actress as she serves movie stars. The boy dreams of being a jazz player while he plays jaunty Christmas tunes or poppy ‘80s music. The girl’s name is Mia (Emma Stone), the boy’s name is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). The start out hating each other and naturally the two become a couple.
They shuffle their feet, they burst forth into song, fingers intertwine. A song begins to emerge: their song. It’s a sweeping, romantic piece. At the pinnacle of their relationship, they put words to it. Two lovers, one song. Together they float into the stars, two bodies caught in the dance of the cosmos. Is it a match made in heaven?
Sebastian drives a clunker, listening to music on an 8-track player. He’s stuck in the past, hoping to relive the ‘60s and ‘70s jazz era he never experienced. His apartment is littered with cases of vinyl records he refuses to unpack until he unpacks them in his jazz club. His unwavering optimism is often out of touch with reality.
Mia drives a Prius and while an image of Ingrid Bergman adorns her wall, she seeks to create something fresh and new. She’s a hybrid of old nostalgia and new dreams. She only looks to the past insofar as it inspires her towards a bright future. And her dreams are tempered with a more harsh outlook on life.
As life goes on, things change. Sebastian settles for a deal to play in a more modern, electronic jazz band. It’s not his perfect dream of owning a jazz club, but when Mia pushes against his desire to make it something long term, he declares it is the dream. As Sam Phillips sings, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”
And then Sebastian turns the tables on Mia and says she only ever loved him because his failure made him feel better about herself. Has Mia only latched on to Sebastian for an ego boost, now that he has emerged successful does she, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, try to pimp him out for her own gain? Does she see him as the weak butterfly?
Sebastian evolves, Mia doesn’t. She puts on a one woman play, going so far as to pay for the chance to perform in a tiny venue. When the play goes horribly, Mia quits the dream and leaves. Dreaming becomes to painful. The only way to stop the pain is to stop the dream.
But then—miracle of miracles—the dream comes true. Mia becomes a star, Sebastian gets his club but achieving the dream tears the couple apart. They realize that while each loves the other, they love their personal dreams more. St. Vincent sings “save me from what I want,” and Sebastian and Mia each gets exactly what he and she wants, but it doesn’t bring true happiness.
Mia starts the film out not liking jazz, making it synonymous with elevator music. But Sebastian opens her ears to a world of musical delight. Together, they sing and dance in a dreamland for two. They trade companionship for professional success. But what then? What have their dreams earned them? Acclaim? Adoration? Status? Is that enough? Sometimes you get what you want but not what you need. Sometimes all you get is a song.