Why do people love it so much?
On the surface, La La Land could not look more innocuous: Charming piano man Ryan Gosling wears a suit and dances with delightful coffee shop employee Emma Stone across old Hollywood backlots. But after pirouetting through a year's worth of seasons, the ending time jumps into the future to upend expectations. After nailing a big audition, striving artist Mia (Stone) earns the opportunity of a lifetime. Cut to five years later, when La La Land reveals her as a rich, successful actress. She's got a daughter now and her husband is played by Tom Everett Scott, who portrayed a fellow jazz-loving drummer in That Thing You Do! To viewers who worship Tom Hanks' '90s movie, you might say she traded up from Gosling's earnest pianist; seriously, Guy Patterson could jam and he was in The Wonders.
From there, we watch her head out for a night on the town with her hubby, getting stuck in one of those LA traffic jams that was so endearing at the beginning of the movie but now takes on a drab, dreary quality. They decide to walk into a jazz club, which happens to be owned by Gosling's Seb. Like Stone, he's achieved a version of his personal artistic dream, operating a seemingly successful club that specializes in the type of "pure jazz" he earnestly advocates for throughout the film. From a purely career-oriented perspective, this could scan as the beginning of a happy ending.
But upon hearing the opening notes of "Mia & Sebastian's Theme," Mia's mind takes flight. She imagines an alternate life for herself, one where she and Seb stayed together forever and forged a beautiful life filled with dancing and homages to French filmmaker Jacques Demy. Like similarly melancholy sequences in films like the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona or Spike Lee's 25th Hour, it's a bittersweet vision of the road not taken tinged with ambiguity. (Chazelle has explained that the ending was actually inspired by the 1927 silent film 7th Heaven.) It's a reminder that life is a series of choices, but it also suggests that two realities can intermingle.
For some viewers, this ambitious sequence is the movie's crowning achievement. Vulture deemed it "uncharacteristically subtle." Other critics have been even more rapturous. "The ending. Oh, the ending," wrote Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson back in September. "The film ends with an affectionate, wistful kiss goodbye, a sublime sequence that might guarantee the film's good fortune at the Oscars."