The Exceptional Power of La La Land
How one magical movie turned a lifelong pessimist into a starry eyed optimist, even if it was just for a minute.
Warning: Major spoilers for La La Land ahead.
Let me start by saying this: La La Land, the new film by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, was not made for me. I don’t much like musicals (why are they constantly singing? People talk. Just talk, dammit) and I’m not a dreamer. The latter sentiment comes on the heels of a pretty rough time in my career and professional life, so I can’t be blamed in thinking that if you “put your mind and heart to something, you can do anything” is a load of self-help schmooze. However, what I do consider myself to be is a lover of movies, no matter what the genre. I remember seeing the trailer for La La Land and being drawn to it because of my love for its two leads and because Whiplash was, and still is, a fantastic film. As hype and promotion started to ramp up, I found myself wanting to see it more than the next Marvel blockbuster or entry in the Star Wars mythos, but would I really want to sit in a movie theater and listen to a bunch of actors sing and dance through two hours? Well last night I decided to do it, and I’m extremely happy that I did.
La La Land tells the story of Mia, played by Emma Stone, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, as two dreamers living in LA trying to make it big in the city of lights. She wants to be an actress, he wants to own his own jazz club. The two meet and fall in love and we follow them through their hardships and triumphs as they try and lie out their dreams. This is La La Land’s plot summarized in the most simplest of ways, but for the sake of this piece that’s really all you need to know. The movie starts off in a traffic jam when all of a sudden the citizens of LA that are sweltering in their cars decide to get up and sing and dance to a tune about how they’re there to become stars. I sat there in the theater in awe of what I was seeing. As previously stated, I don’t much care for musicals because of this very reason. In film school I was forced to watch Singing in the Rain, which I actually enjoyed, but all musicals after that were, to me anyways, just cringy and eyeroll-inducing. People don’t just get up and sing, or even know how to sing. But from the moment “Another Day of Sun” starts I found myself explicably hooked and, worse yet, smiling. From that opening note on, I knew I was in trouble.
As the movie continues, more signing and elaborate dance pieces occur but by the second act they somewhat vanish. Much to my surprise, I sat in my seat wanting them to just break out in song. It was a weird sensation that I never felt in my over 20 years of watching and loving cinema. Part of this comes from Stone and Gosling, whose chemistry and bravery really shines through every time they’re on the screen. The two of them are so goddamn charming and likeable that it’s nigh impossible to not be enamored by them. So as the movie moves into its final act, Stone’s Mia has a callback for audition and instead of just telling the story as requested by the casting director, she sings a song about dreamers. Entitled “The Fools Who Dream”, Stone owned me the moment she started singing.
So as a pessimist who just went through a pretty brutal career speed bump, you would think that this cheesey, corny and downright manipulative random act of uplifting singing would turn me off. It didn’t. I was in love with this movie from the start and this moment that symbolizes everything I hate about “follow your dream” messages, and musicals in general. But as she commanded the screen and sung I found my grip tightening and my heart beating faster. In that moment I felt like a dreamer, like she was singing to me. I felt that I could go home, write my magnum opus and some publisher will pick it up, or I’ll write a big sweeping piece and be noticed by my favorite publication and I’ll get the job I’ve been longing for. This is the power of film and to be more specific, La La Land. One movie, one moment, can make you feel things that not even the most uplifting and positive pep talks from your buddy or a family member ever could. I felt this moment and every word of the song clung to every part of me.
La La Land is by no means a perfect film. As a non-fan of happy endings (cause life doesn’t have happy endings), I was glad that Seb and Mia don’t end up together at the end, no matter how much I loved them both. The “five years later” jump was jarring to me, and do I wish that Mia got married and had a child without becoming this huge star. But as the epilogue continues, and she wanders down into a club with her husband only to see the sign for “Seb’s” (a sign and name she created for Sebastian’s dream club earlier in the film), I felt even more angered. I mean, he got what he always wanted too? I do blame myself for feeling this way, having bought into the whole movie up to that point, but just as I’m thinking that I’m done with this film, something incredible happens. As Mia sits and locks eyes with Seb, the movie provides us with the most beautiful gut punch ever. Told through somewhat of a mini movie, we see what would have happened to Mia and Seb in an even more perfect world. They have a child together, she becomes a huge star, he follows her to France and they live happily ever after. Together. But that’s not life. Life will take something from you in order for you to get what you want. Chalk it up to balancing out the universe if you will. Mia and Seb lost the incredible, once in a lifetime love they shared in order to achieve their dreams, but was it all worth it?
Well, by the nod and smile they exchange at the end, it seems to be. But it damn hell wasn’t for for me. This “hater-of-happy-endings” sat in his seat and wanted them to have it all, the jobs, the life and each other, and thought they could’ve had it all had they chose differently. That flash of what could’ve been offers it up on the table knowing it will flip that table over eventually. But even with that beautifully brutal ending, I walked out feeling something that I hadn’t in a very long time: hope. Hope that I can make it. Hope that I’ll be ok. Hope that I understand that when it comes time to make a sacrifice in order to get to where I need, and deserve, to be in life I can give up whatever I need to. Will I feel this way in a month or even tomorrow? Probably not. But hey, I’m here writing this and that’s more optimism than I’ve had in a very long time.