The movie is said to have been filmed in CINEMASCOPE (like the old time musicals) and then the screen expands from box format to wide. We find ourselves on the 105/110 interchange in Los Angeles. People listen to various forms of music in their cars. Then one woman gets out of her vehicle and starts singing ANOTHER DAY OF SUN to camera (à la a musical), a song about how great it is being in sunny California. Someone else exits his car and joins her. Pretty soon, everyone has left their car and is singing the song while dancing in the street or on the cars that are parked via the traffic jam, everything synchronized for the full-length musical number. The song ends and everyone gets back in their cars. We are told it is WINTER. Traffic finally begins to move. Inside her Toyota Prius, Mia (Emma Stone) appears to be talking to someone on the phone. In his classic car, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) honks at her to move. We realize she isn’t talking to anyone but is practicing for an upcoming audition. Sebastian goes around her, glaring, while she flips him off. She then murmurs that she should probably move (as she’s obstructing the traffic flow).
Mia works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot, serving the employees of the studio. When a movie star comes in for coffee, the manager tells her it’s “on the house” so she puts her money in the tip jar instead. Mia watches somberly as the movie star gets on a golf cart, being escorted to set. She tries to head out so she can make an audition. Her boss stops her and is shown to be pretty stringent with her. Mia rushes off so she won’t be late and collides with a customer, spilling coffee all over her shirt. When Mia gets to the audition, she is now wearing a jacket over her blouse. She does her reading, giving a really honest performance where she breaks into tears. But it goes unnoticed as someone appears in the window with a message. The casting directors interrupt Mia’s audition while they talk to an assistant who tells them someone has called for them, which they say to relay that they’ll return the call shortly. Mia is thanked even though they have neglected to watch her performance. She exits the casting office and into the waiting area where everyone looks like her. Then she gets into the elevator where two other girls look like her and are wearing similar clothes (very common in auditions since they call in girls with the same look and ask them to dress a certain way).
Meanwhile, Sebastian drives his car to a parking lot. Across the street, he watches a jazz club close down. He goes home, to the run-down apartment he lives in, and his sister is there. He chastises her for putting her feet on a stool which he took from the street after a jazz club closed down, citing that one of his favorite jazz musicians had sat on it. In their conversation, it’s evident that he loves jazz music and he tells her how his favorite club is being closed down and turned into a Samba/Tapas place. His sister points out that all his bills are overdue and that he needs to start making money.
Mia returns home to the house she lives with three other aspiring actresses. They ask how her audition went but she doesn’t want to discuss it. They are all going out to a Hollywood party at the home of someone in the film industry and suggest she goes along. She is reluctant but through a song called SOMEONE IN THE CROWD, Mia’s roommates point out that someone might discover her if she attends and she can ascend from being just someone in the crowd. We see the party in a classic movie musical montage with close-ups of champagne being poured and creepy older men hitting on Mia. Time moves in slow-motion and the guests ballroom dance around her. The night has proven uneventful and Mia returns to her car only to realize she has parked in a “TOW AWAY ZONE 9PM-6AM” and has stayed too late at the party. She is forced to walk in heels down the canyon into the city. She walks around Hollywood and is distracted when she hears a beautiful jazz song being played on piano. It entices her to step into a restaurant/night club called Lipton’s where she sees Sebastian playing the song. We flash back to earlier in the night when he talks to the club’s manager (J.K. Simmons in a cameo role) about whether he can do some of his choices for songs. The manager refuses. He asks if he can do one as requested and then one of his own and is told, no. He asks if he can do two as requested and then one of his own. The manager tells him all the songs should be as requested. So he begins to play Christmas songs, begrudgingly, as the patrons ignore him. After several holiday tunes, he begins to play his own piece. As fantasy, the lights in the club dim and he plays the piano in a spotlight. The piece is beautiful and goes on and on. This is when Mia has stepped into the club. When Sebastian finishes, the lights go back on. The manager pulls him aside and tells him he’s fired. He tells him he can’t fire him and that it’s Christmas; the manager says, “I know. I see the decorations.” Sebastian tries to convince him to give him another chance but is denied. Mia watches this whole exchange. As he passes her, she tries to tell him how moved she was by his music but he gives her a dirty look and pushes past her. This takes her aback.
We’re told it’s now SPRING. Mia ends at up at a pool party while an ‘80s cover band plays “Take On Me” by A-Ha. Mia is introduced to a young man who is said to be a writer. He immediately goes into a spiel about how his career is blowing up and he’s on everyone’s radar; she excuses herself and ventures over to the band, only to see Sebastian is the keyboardist, wearing a hot red track suit akin to ‘80s fashion. The singer asks if anyone has any requests. She shouts out “I Ran.” Sebastian gives her a knowing look. The band plays “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls with the lyrics “I never thought I’d meet a girl like you… and I ran, I ran so far away.” After their set, Sebastian finds Mia and tells her she can’t request “I Ran” because he’s a serious musician. She playfully mocks his outfit and says she needs his wardrobe for an audition she has that week, for the role of a Serious Musician. He asks what she does in life that puts her so high above him to critique she tells him she works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros lot and he chastises her for being a barista yet talking down to him.
After the event, the writer tries chatting Mia up again. She sees Sebastian leaving and calls out to him to get her keys from the valet, as a way to escape the conversation. He asks what car she drives. When she tells him it’s a Toyota Prius, he notes that all the cars are Priuses. She tells him the one with the blue ribbon. We cut to them walking down the canyon amongst parked cars. She mentions it’s strange that they keep running into each other but he deadpans that it’s completely normal. Her remote car key fob isn’t beeping. He tells her to put it under her chin to connect with the antenna, joking that it will give her cancer but she’ll find her car faster so it’s a fair tradeoff. The two playfully bicker and then find themselves at the top of the canyon with a view of Los Angeles below, the sunset looking pink (this entire scene was filmed as one take during Magic Hour). They both joke that the view is nothing to look at. Sebastian begins singing A LOVELY NIGHT, a playful musical number where he says it’s a waste of a lovely night to have to share it with someone like her. Mia changes from heels into tennis shoes and midway through, she joins in on the singing. They break into a Rogers and Astaire type dance number [this whole scene is a really epic piece of cinema]. When the song ends, she gets a call from “Greg,” who ends up being her boyfriend. He asks how long they’ve been dating; she says a few months. She then puts the fob under her chin and hears a chirp. She gets to her car and asks if he wants a ride. He says, no, he’s parked just up the hill. She drives away, never giving him any contact info. He watches her go and then heads DOWNHILL, walking a long distance to his car.
Mia auditions again first for the role of a doctor where she has to recite jargon that she doesn’t understand; then the role of a police officer reciting jargon she doesn’t understand; and then she reads the role of a White woman trying to educate inner-city high school students, with the casting assistant reading the lines (“Why you trippin’?”) opposite her in monotone. Mia is now back at work at the coffee shop. A snooty woman asks her if a pastry is gluten free. Mia tells her, no. The woman demands a refund. She tells her she has to get her manager to approve that. When she approaches the manager, she is told that she has to work Friday, despite having an audition. She goes back to the counter and Sebastian is there; the only info he had about her was where she worked. She asked how he got onto the lot and he said he hightailed it past security and might need to hide in the bathroom for a little bit. He asks when she’s getting off work and she tells him in ten minutes. The lady who wants the refund demands service so Mia tries to take care of it at the register before realizing she still needs approval.
Sebastian and Mia leave the cafe; outside they are filming a movie musical with a woman we are told is a movie star. Sebastian recognizes the process of lock-ups (keeping people walking by from disrupting the shot) because so many movies film on his street. He asks Mia why she is an actress. She says her aunt was an actress and when she’d visit her in Nevada, they’d go across the street to the library and check out old movies. She used to write plays and put on productions and always wanted to act. As they continue walking past the stages on the Warner Bros. lot, Mia then tells him about her last audition for a show that is “Dangerous Minds” meets “The OC.” He suggests that she write her own material so that she doesn’t have to suffer at auditions, citing that Louis Armstrong did this. She tells him she must confess that she doesn’t like jazz music. This inspires him to take her to a jazz club called The Lighthouse. As he plays piano onstage with the band, she swing dances with the crowd. She decides she really likes jazz music. She is interrupted when she gets a phone call she has got a callback. Sebastian asks what it’s for and she said it’s the “Dangerous Minds/OC” show but it’s not as bad as she made it out to be now that she has a callback. It’s more like “Rebel Without a Cause.” He quotes the movie but she doesn’t know what he’s referencing. He realizes she hasn’t seen the film. He tells her it’s playing at the Rialto and they should see it together later that week. She agrees and he says goodbye.
Mia has the callback for the show and is optimistic about booking the role. But one casting director just texts on her phone while the other one just looks at her headshot instead of her. After she reads one line, he tells her that’s enough. She suggests doing it a different way but he won’t let her. Back at home, Mia gets ready to go to the Rialto and is surprised by her boyfriend, Greg (Finn Wittrock) who reminds her they’re going to visit some friends at a nice dinner. She doesn’t have Sebastian’s contact info so she isn’t able to postpone.
Sebastian arrives at the theater, waiting endlessly for Mia. Simultaneously, Mia is at dinner while Greg has pompous conversation with his friend and his friend’s fiancé about all the exotic places they’ve traveled to. Mia looks up at the speaker which is playing jazz music. She apologizes to Greg and leaves the restaurant, running towards the movie theater in heels. The movie has already begun and Mia can’t find Sebastian in the darkened theater so she stands up on the stage until he identifies her. They watch the movie together, with the scene at the Griffith Observatory on the screen. Their hands slowly drift closer and closer until they touch. They hold hands. He leans in to kiss her and then THE PROJECTOR BREAKS. The lights turn on and the moment is interrupted. Sebastian has an idea for a fun alternative.
The two end up at the Griffith Observatory, seated in the same spot that we had seen in the 1955 film. They venture into the gallery which they have access to somehow, even though it’s closed. Sebastian sings CITY OF STARS and they dance around, finally end up in the planetarium. Suddenly they float up to the dome ceiling which is lit up with stars and find themselves in the stars. They dance in outer space and finally kiss.
It’s now SUMMER. Mia and Sebastian are now dating. She is writing a play, as Sebastian suggested. Her roommates ask for parts but she tells them it’s a one-woman show. Sebastian arrives at her home but instead of coming to the door, he lays on his horn until she goes outside, annoying her roommates. The two go out to The Lighthouse where Sebastian plays the piano. He joins her at a table and she asks what his ultimate goal is as a jazz musician. He tells her he wants to open a jazz club ideally taking back his favorite one that got turned into a Samba/Tapas place. The two are interrupted by a friend of Sebastian’s, Keith (John Legend) who he had previously been in a jazz band with. Keith offers Sebastian an upcoming gig performing at $1000 a week but he declines.
Back at Sebastian’s apartment, he finishes reading her play and tells her it’s incredible. She is going to rent out a theater in town and do it as a one-woman show. She is working on a logo for his club. She wants him to call it SEB’S and he compliments that she used a music note for the apostrophe but he is set on the name CHICKEN ON A STICK as an homage to the jazz musician Charlie Parker, who got his nickname “Bird” because he loved eating chicken. She is insistent he not use that name.
They eat dinner. When they’re done, Sebastian sits at the piano and sings CITY OF STARS. Mia joins in, as a duet. Later that night, Mia is on the phone with her mother. She is being asked about Sebastian and defensively tells her mom that he’s going to open a jazz club but admits he doesn’t have the money yet. She is insistent he is saving up though, even though this isn’t actually true. Overhearing this, Sebastian is lost in his thoughts.
Now we see Sebastian has decided to take the gig with Keith and his band. They rehearse a song but Sebastian keeps trying to make it sound like old school jazz despite them modernizing it. Keith pulls Sebastian aside and notes that Sebastian has always been difficult because he’s a traditionalist but young people don’t like that kind of jazz music it has to be modernized to appeal to them and Sebastian is foolish to cling to the antiquated past instead of focusing on the future of jazz.
Mia arranges a theater rental for her one-woman show. She then attends a concert with Keith and Sebastian and their band. What begins as a jazz song turns into a dance number with samples of jazz elements (“START A FIRE”). The massive crowd of young people love it as it sounds very modern and radio friendly. But Mia is surprised that Sebastian doesn’t mind selling out when he is so particular in the style of music he loves. She searches his face for disapproval but he kind of shrugs the experience off as a non-issue.
It’s now FALL. Mia drives by the Rialto, where they saw “Rebel Without a Cause” and notices it’s been closed. She emails a handful of people about her show. Sebastian comes home and they have dinner together. She notes that she hasn’t seen him in months and is so glad they’re together again. He suggests she joins the band in Boise for their next gig. She politely declines saying she has to stay in Los Angeles because her show is two weeks away from its opening night. He points out it’s a one-woman show and she can rehearse in Boise. She responds that the theater is set up for her in L.A. She notes that she’s terrified that she’ll be terrible, noting that while he doesn’t seem to have concerns with performing, she has a lot of fear of whether people like her or not. She asks when the tour ends. He tells her there’s no set amount of time but when it’s done, they will then begin recording the record and then start another tour to promote the record the whole thing could be years. She asks him if he even likes the music they’re doing. He is surprised by this and notes that the music is fine. Mia presses that he loves old school jazz. He doesn’t understand why she’s debating about his band she pressured him to make money to start a club and he went out and did that. She asks why he can’t just begin focusing on the club with the money he’s already earned. He tells her he’s now part of something that is a success and that’s what every musician strives for. Sebastian suggests she’s surprised that the band would be successful because she suspected it would fail. He then adds that she probably doesn’t want him to stay in the band to keep him down on her level (since she hasn’t had much success as an actress). She asks if he’s serious. He says, ‘yes.’ This moves Mia to tears and she leaves. Sebastian realizes the dinner has been burnt in the oven.
The day comes for Mia’s one-woman show. Sebastian has promised to be there since he’s in L.A. practicing with his band. As he heads out after practice, Keith reminds Sebastian of the photo shoot they have that night, for the album artwork. Sebastian didn’t know it was that night and we realize he’s going to miss Mia’s show.
Mia performs her one-woman show while across town, Sebastian is photographed by an obnoxious photographer who asks him to bite his lip and lower his glasses to his nose. Mia’s show ends and we see that only ten people are in the audience. To add insult to injury, when she goes backstage, she can overhear people complaining that Mia isn’t that good of an actress and the show was bad her worst fear.
Sebastian gets to the theater after it’s closed but in time to run into Mia exiting. He apologizes for missing the show. She is upset and has lost faith in herself. She tells him her desire to be an actress was probably just a pipe dream and she’s wasted six years, never realizing until now that she wasn’t good enough to be an actress. He tries to encourage her but she points out she can’t even pay back the theater because she had no ticket sales. She tells him she’s got to regroup and is going home he thinks she means her home in L.A. but she tells him she means “home home” a.k.a. Nevada.
Mia flies back to Nevada and moves back in with her family. Time goes by and Sebastian is in his apartment in L.A. He receives a phone call, someone asking for Mia. He tells her she is no longer accessible. The woman on the phone says she was told that this was the only number she could possibly reach her after she couldn’t reach her through her home number. She tells Sebastian she is with Amy Brandt Casting.
Inside her childhood home, Mia notices all the acting paraphernalia that decorated her room. In the middle of the night, she is startled when someone outside lays on his car horn. Mia knows who it is immediately as this is how Sebastian would always get her attention. She goes to the window and see Sebastian across the street, with a neighbor yelling at him to be quiet.
Mia joins Sebastian outside. He tells her that a casting director had called him she was one of the ten people who had seen Mia’s one-woman show and now she wants Mia to audition for a movie the next day at 5 PM. Mia isn’t sure if she wants to travel all the way back to L.A. to get her heart broken again. Sebastian tells her he’ll be outside her home at 6 AM if she’s there, he’ll drive her; otherwise, he’ll go back without her. She asks how he found her and he points out it’s the house across from the library (she had mentioned this in the story about her aunt inspiring her to become an actress).
Sebastian returns the next morning and parks outside of her house but she’s not there. He drives away and then Mia steps into frame, telling him she was delayed because she got them coffee. She hops in the car and they drive to California. He takes her to the audition which now is just them in the waiting room, unlike her previous. She is immediately called into the audition room where both Amy Brandt and her assistant are friendly and happy to see her, already familiar with her from her play. Mia is told that the film will have a three month rehearsal and then a four month shoot in Paris. There is no script (as it will be more akin to French cinema of old) so for her audition, they ask her to tell her a story. She thinks for a bit and then begins to tell them about how her aunt lived in Paris once. This monologue turns into a song, THE FOOLS WHO DREAM, about how Paris is the place for dreamers.
Mia and Sebastian go back to Griffith Park to catch up after their absence from each other. He asks how the audition went but she is afraid to be positive and get her hopes up. Mia asks Sebastian where they are now. He tells her Griffith Park but admits he’s joking; he tells her he doesn’t know where their relationship stands but he doesn’t want to be the one to keep her from her dream. He is confident she will get the part and she has to devote all of herself to the opportunity, just like he did with his music. And that doesn’t include him.
We see a palm tree and are told it’s WINTER. But then we pull back to see it’s actually a scrim with a palm tree and we’re on the Warner Bros. lot. We’re told it’s FIVE YEARS LATER. Mia goes into the same coffee shop she used to work in. The new manager and employee are a bit star-struck and tell her the coffee’s on the house. Like the movie star in the beginning of the film, Mia puts the money she intended to pay for the coffee with in the tip jar and then goes outside to a golf cart where she’s chauffeured to a set. Meanwhile, Sebastian gets out of his car and walks into a jazz club with a movie poster advertising Mia’s latest film on the side of the building.
Mia goes to her expansive home and greets her husband who is revealed to not be Sebastian but David (Tom Everett Scott). The babysitter watches their daughter and David and Mia go out to an event, supporting a colleague in the industry. But they get stuck in gridlock traffic with no cars moving. Mia notes that this is what she doesn’t miss about the city, letting us know she’s bicoastal but based mostly in New York. She suggests that David exit the freeway and they go out to dinner instead.
After dinner, Mia is walking to their car but the sound of jazz music convinces David to scope out a nearby jazz club. He asks if Mia wants to check it out and she agrees. Inside, the club is packed with hundreds of people as the band is finishing up a song. The club’s owner goes onstage to welcome the crowd and thank the band and it’s revealed to Mia to be Sebastian. Mia watches, astonished, and Sebastian notices her, temporarily losing his cool demeanor. He takes the spot of the pianist and begins to play CITY OF STARS. The lights dim on him and he plays, lit only by spotlight. When it’s over, the lights turn back up and we find him back in the restaurant where she first saw him playing the same song on the piano (with an identical lighting cue at the end of the song). Once again, Sebastian is fired by his manager (J.K. Simmons) for not sticking to Christmas tunes. He walks by Mia who tries to compliment him but instead of brushing her off, as before, he grabs her and kisses her.
This begins a lengthy epilogue, a ten minute musical number where Mia and Sebastian dance from one set to another, symbolizing what their life could have been together. It starts with all of the restaurants patrons and the manager dancing. Then we see their entire story depicted in a long interpretative dance. They walk by the movie star filming on the Warner Bros. lot and then they’re inside a soundstage with people dancing on a recreation of the 105/110 interchange while a camera crew films. Then they’re back at the jazz club with Keith approaching Sebastian but Sebastian turns him away before he can even say hello. They’re in Paris with Mia filming a movie and becoming a star. They end up getting married. Now we see them as a couple, with her returning home but it’s a more humble abode than in reality. Instead of David and her daughter, it’s Sebastian and her son. They leave the baby with a babysitter and end up in the same exact gridlock traffic. Mia now suggests to SEBASTIAN that they blow off the event and go to dinner instead. She stops by their parked car but he leads her into the jazz club. They find the same seats that Mia and David found but now it’s Sebastian next to her while they watch a pianist play on the stage. Sebastian and Mia seem closer and more affectionate than she does with David. But then the vision ends and she’s next to David with Sebastian onstage, at the piano it all being a fantasy that never happened. The crowd applauds, loving the song. David asks Mia if she wants to stick around for another. She contemplates the question but then finally says no. The two exit and she pauses at the door, seeing the club has been named after her suggestion of SEB’S and Sebastian used the logo she designed with the music note for the apostrophe.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Aspiring actress Mia runs into jazz musician Sebastian when she hears him playing piano; but he blows her off. When she runs into him again at a party, the two bond over a dance number while walking to their car. She leaves her boyfriend for him and they inspire each other to follow their dreams he encourages her to write a play for herself to act in and she encourages him to open up his own jazz club. To raise money for the club, Sebastian joins a band which ends up becoming very successful while, simultaneously, Mia’s one-woman show flops.
Mia moves back to Nevada, but the play has caught the eye of a casting director who reaches out to Sebastian when she can’t get a hold of Mia. He drives hours to Nevada and brings her back to L.A. for the audition.
Five years later, we learn that Mia has become a huge movie star and he has opened a very successful jazz club but they did not end up with each other. In an epilogue, we see what their life could have been, depicted in a ten minute song-and-dance.
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