“La La Land” and the Quest to Have It All

When I heard about La La Land, the Greatest Generation old fogie living inside of me got really excited.

I was born in 1982, but I grew up watching a lot of classic cinema — and much of it was musical. By the time I was 10, I had seen Top Hat repeatedly and was scouring the local Blockbuster Video to discover other Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musical offerings. The Gay Divorcee, Swing Time, Easter Parade, The Bandwagon, Summer Stock, Royal Wedding, Shall We Dance, Three Little Words…the list of my childhood movie musical diet plays on, brimming with cinematic Astaire deep tracks.

My movie musical fervor even led me to sign up for park district tap dancing lessons and, when I was the only male 10-year-old in a room full of 4-year-old ballerinas, my mom arranged for private lessons. I was never any good, but it sure was fun. Later in life, I discovered the joy of swing dancing — which I’m decent at — and finally satisfied my thirst to feel how Fred felt as he glided across the dance floor.

This is all just a long way of proving my movie musical street cred and explaining why I was looking forward to what La La Land might add to the genre.

La La Land opens on a jammed Los Angeles freeway, and you immediately get the feeling that everyone is about to burst into song. This is a musical, right? Sure enough, LA traffic is the perfect excuse for all the beautiful, pastels-wearing drivers to jump out of their cars and engage in an elaborate and exuberant (seemingly one-take) song and dance number that ultimately leads us to our protagonists, two distracted drivers antagonizing each other on their way to their disparate and ultimately despondent destinations.

If you thought this opening musical spectacle was an indication of what the rest of the movie would deliver, however, you were wrong. (Hint: I was wrong.)

While there were a couple more whimsical dance numbers and a few more songs interspersed, La La Land is not a traditional movie musical. And, in a way, that’s kind of the whole point. This is Oscar bait, after all. It can’t just be fluffy singing and dancing. There has to be a point with a capital P.

So La La Land sets out to offer a modern take on the classic musical genre. Like many musicals before it, the film is visually stunning with swirling cinematography whisking you off to an idealized version of always sunny Los Angeles that makes you want to pack your bags and head west immediately. There is also some magical singing and dancing erupting from every day situations to provide that movie musical escapism that these days seems reserved for the Muppets or Amy Adams or Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

But the movie musical veneer ends there and the modern-day sensibilities creep in. Millennials are so much more complex than Gene Kelly could possibly have imagined.

Don’t expect every plot point to be advanced with a song. And don’t expect Sebastian and Mia (La La Land’s incarnation of Fred and Ginger) to fit into the standard musical progression of boy-meets-girl, boy-pursues-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-and-girl-live-happily-ever-after. There are more choices and more outcomes these days.

And that’s the overriding theme of La La Land. Life is a series of choices and those choices affect your path — and who’s on the path alongside you. While this isn’t groundbreaking social commentary, it’s perhaps the first time that a stylized movie musical has gotten its hands dirty delving into “life is complicated” territory like this. If you think you can have it all, you’re living in…well…La La Land. Mia and Sebastian briefly trick themselves — and us — into thinking that they can achieve a technicolor balance of artistic fame and a rock-solid relationship, but eventually they are forced to choose.

The metaphor is unwittingly extended by the filmmakers when you realize that the movie can’t have it all either. The first half of the film has the best of a classic musical — witty dialogue, the thrill of the romantic chase, some passable original songs, and a few dance numbers that might not win any points for creativity or complexity but are nevertheless refreshing to see on screen.

As Seb and Mia realize that there are forks in the road to their respective dreams of success, the movie starts to drag a bit, and you wonder if the first hour was just a song and dance to engage you in an emotionally overwrought love story that you’ve seen a million times before.

Thankfully, the last third of the movie kicks it back into fresh territory, as the film posits that it might just be impossible to get the sugar-coated ending that Fred Astaire musicals virtually guaranteed…but it also satisfies its movie musical forebears by cleverly giving you that ending as well.

It also poses a bunch of existential questions on success and happiness. How do you measure professional success? Is it doing what you love? Is it being commercially or financially successful even if you have to sacrifice some of the details of your dreams along the way? And what is worth sacrificing at the altar of success? Personal relationships? Artistic freedom?

The film’s conclusion definitely conjures up feelings of what might have been, but also seems to stress that what is is just fine, too.

Perhaps the most provocative question of all is posed to those who feel they are happy and successful: If you had made different choices at crucial points in your life, would you be even happier or even more successful? Are you less happy and more successful? Vice versa?

La La Land won a bunch of Golden Globes already and today was nominated for several more Oscars. While the presence of my five-month-old daughter has largely prevented me from seeing any of the other contenders this year, the movie at least deserves recognition for putting new dancing shoes on an old formula and ultimately delivering more than just a throwback musical. There’s also a really catchy new John Legend song, a beautiful, jazzy score, and a wonderful cameo by J.K. Simmons.

Finally, La La Land left me pondering an existential question about my own life: What might have happened I had kept up those tap dancing lessons?

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