(This article contains spoilers for La La Land.)
All forms of art possess an innate ability to create retrospective and spur forethought. These modes of thinking can lead to criticisms of anything and everything, most often critiques of childhood, relationships, and career paths. Each genre of film is a lens by which to see the world, and while there are countless hybrids of genres, Hollywood sure does love a mirror.
While more common in film’s earlier stages, Hollywood has been romanticizing and vilifying itself since its inception. From Behind the Screen to Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, and even 2016’s Hail, Caesar!, filmmakers love using the art of their craft as a means to explore themes and relationships. The Hollywood genre is rife with self-discovery, leading to success and fulfillment or failure and denial. Damien Chazelle explores the struggles of commitment and the torture it takes to follow a dream in his 2014 film, Whiplash. While he does not shy away from the psychological trauma suffered to pursue the profession of a jazz percussionist, he uses the thriller lens to focus on the physical torture of chasing said dream. His 2016 musical film, La La Land, instead explores a journey from fantasy to reality, and the pain that comes with it. Not only do his protagonists sacrifice years and self-respect to the Hollywood gods, they sacrifice the film itself and all the whimsical scenes they share to “make it.” La La Land is a beautiful testament to transcending what Hollywood teaches audiences to accept as the path to a perfect life.
La La Land opens on a busy Los Angeles highway with a rousing musical number about every new day being an opportunity to catch that coveted big break. Its optimistic mantra, “Another Day of Sun,” implores those dreamers that even if today didn’t work out, there’s always one more day. The mood is seemingly broken at the conclusion of the first number with honks of car horns and shouts of frustrated road rage at the gridlock surrounding the ensemble cast. But never fear, there’s another musical number to explain your big break could be right around the corner (if you’re in the right crowd, to schmooze the right person at the right time). When Sebastian, an aggravated jazz musician, and Mia, an undervalued and aspiring actress, finally share a conversation, they are forced to confront their approaches to success. Unchallenged, both are almost at the end of their creative journeys. Together, they vow to upend the system and write themselves into a script that fits them, instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along.
The pursuit of artistic integrity is an amalgam of intent and reception. Both protagonists value intent and reception to various degrees. From birth, we are raised to perform to the best of our abilities, but are always plagued by at least a small degree of fear that our actions won’t be well-received. It is this fear that inhibits action, and we do well to have those in our lives that challenge us and prompt us to act. La La Land confronts this fear by having two characters who speak to both sides of reasoning. Although it is important to have something original or insightful to add to the ongoing conversation of life, it is equally important to throw caution to the wind and not give a damn about inevitable criticisms. La La Land isn’t any different from a lot of films in that it does set up its third act to be the reconciliation of a failure, but it flips the script by presenting an alternate reality to the typical romantic ending.
La La Land urges its audience to have a romantic experience with life and not be limited to the romances of only partners or careers and the conception of the “perfect ending.” Sebastian stresses his love of jazz comes from the endless possibilities it presents. He embraces the improvisation of life and helps Mia see that a lack of control can be the ticket to artistic freedom. The audition that scores Mia her breakthrough role is an improvised story she tells about her aunt who lived in Paris. She sings, “Here's to the ones who dream, crazy as they may seem. Here’s to the hearts that break. Here’s to the mess we make.” The course we think we need to be on is frequently not the one that gets us to our desired destination. Mia repays Sebastian by teaching him along the way, that catering to a crowd doesn’t necessarily mean the death of his creative freedom. There can be a merger between the two: intent and reception. Both help the other to achieve complete career satisfaction.
Retrospection breeds a wonder of what could have been if we would have done even one thing differently. After five years apart, Sebastian and Mia see each other again, and are thrust into a romanticized version of their realistic relationship. Each scene is echoed, through music from when they first met, to when they eventually parted ways, and even beyond. La La Land does not discredit the relationship they shared or the way they made each other feel, even though they ultimately do not end up together. The film speaks to the beauty in each step in life that gets us to the next. We’re all on different paths that lead to different destinations, and it’s okay (even necessary) to feel a sense of whimsy every now and then. With today’s political, social, and cultural climates, Hollywood’s infinite lenses can provide a much needed break from reality. La La Land is a great distraction: just remember to come back down.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.