I confess, I enjoy musicals, and not just because they make my wife happy. From “Singing in the Rain” to “Moulin Rouge” musicals that are done well are often able to punch a unique emotional punch. La La Land is no exception. But beyond being a movie that is profoundly successful in landing an emotional punch, La La Land also manages to deftly challenge the contemporary uncontested truth that following one’s dreams leads to happiness.
La La Land’s opening scene sets the expectation that La La Land will be all style with little substance, with a throw-back full-on opening musical number that ratchets up the Hollywood. We meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is a barista on the Hollywood movie studio backlot. She is desperately trying to catch a break, but meets with disappointment after disappointment.
She meets down-on-his luck jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who dreams of restoring a famous jazz club. He’s trapped in a world that has lost its love for jazz. He battles trying to earn a living while refusing to cave to America’s love of pop music and disinterest in jazz.
[Spoiler alert] The two, despite themselves, begin to fall for one another and in the midst of their new romance, begin making first career choices and then life choices that impact their trajectory and relationship. Sebastian encourages Mia to go for her dreams of writing and producing and starring in her own play and she plunges into her dream. Meanwhile, Sebastian releases his own dreams and reunites with a successful pop jazz-soul band who had sold out to the public’s taste.
Although her solo play flops, Mia unexpectedly lands a career-changing role by catching the eye of a director. The dramatic fulcrum rests on Mia and Sebastian wrestling with Mia should go after this opportunity and move overseas for an extended period of time or whether she should forego the opportunity for the sake of their relationship. Sebastian encourages her to take the opportunity and she does.
It is at this point [major spoiler alert] that La La Land subverts our expectations and in so doing elevates itself above so many other good musicals. Fast forwarding five years we meet Mia (now a movie star), her husband (not Sebastian) and her adorable baby girl. They wind up in Sebastian’s jazz club and Sebastian and Mia lock eyes as Sebastian imagines the relationship that could have been theirs. They have reached their vocational dreams, but it cost them their relationship. And further subverting the Hollywood narrative, Mia follows her husband out of the bar, choosing fidelity to her marriage rather than chasing her former love.
In the most heightened of Hollywood forms, the musical, La La Land packs a punch in its grounded wisdom: dreams come with a cost. What is your dream worth? What are your relationships worth? It is a simple but meaningful question that echoes scriptural wisdom. The sage in Ecclesiastes speaks of the end of our pursuit of our passions: “And whatever my eyes desires I did not keep from them. I kept from my heart no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).
Wisdom from an unexpected source is sometimes the most compelling wisdom of all. Bravo La La Land for speaking truth in the most unexpected of places.