City of Stars: La La Land

At last year’s Oscars, La La Land had just tied with Titanic and All About Eve for most Oscar award nominations in history; and, of course, the infamous award fakeout featuring La La Land happened last year, as well. As a part of our Oscar coverage this year, we’re going to take a look back at this darling of last year’s awards circuit.

The film stars Emma Stone of Easy A fame and Ryan Gosling from The Notebook. They play a barista named Mia who is constantly auditioning for roles, and a jazz pianist named Sebastian with strong convictions about his music. Both perform their parts well and do a pretty good job singing and dancing. It evokes memories of classic musical movies from the Gene Kelly era like Singin’ in the Rain.

Taken along with his more recent musical The Greatest Showman, it seems that Damien Chazelle is the latest director to create a throw-back movie; a movie in a style that the director loves that is past its prime, but they want to share with a modern audience that may have missed out on what they loved about that style. Other examples would be J.J. Abrams’ film Super 8, which channeled Spielberg classics like E.T.; or The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius introducing the art of the silent film to a new generation. All 3 were done very well, in my opinion, and are great for when you may need a nostalgia fix- or even when you want to experience these types of movies for the first time before delving into the library of older films in that category.

Another Day of Sun

Now, I do not want to act like other modern musical movies don’t exist. We have had Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Hairspray, and a plethora of animated musical movies; and more recently a string of Pitch Perfect and High School Musical movies.

But they aren’t really in the same wheelhouse as Singin’ in the Rain.

There’s something classy and sophisticated about the ballroom, tap and stage dancing combination; there’s something elegant about the guy in a tie and gal in a skirt dancing together, while the character arcs before and after the number give the choreography more meaning; whether that’s playful flirting, an angry back and forth, hopeful expectation, or heartbreaking sorrow.

I guess what I am saying is I’m a fan, too. I participated in a few of the musical productions at my high school that were meant for the stage, but musicals made for the stage that are then adapted to movies just aren’t the same. Both La La Land and Singin’ in the Rain were made for the movies first.

That makes a difference; it shouldn’t seem like much, but the results speak for themselves. The shots, the editing, and the overall feel seem to be hampered when you are adapting an existing stage show to film. That can’t happen with a musical starting behind the camera.

I must admit that, though both Stone and Gosling are attractive, talented performers, Gosling is no Gene Kelly and Stone is no Debbie Reynolds. There was a preciseness lacking in the choreography; probably because Gene Kelly was an accomplished dancer and singer who usually played an accomplished dancer and singer, while Ryan Gosling was just playing Sebastian who loved jazz piano, and has not been recognized outside of this movie as a professional dancer or singer. Not to say that either Gosling or Stone did a bad job, but it made me miss the polish of the old movies’ dancing and singing performances.

Another blemish on the face of a great movie was the transitions from regular movie to musical. The opening number did a fine job of slowly changing to give the audience a chance to prepare for the coming song and dance; but later, when the couple aren’t yet sure of their relationship, I almost audibly laughed when Sebastian started to throw in some dance moves without any pretense or musical cue to let us know that the transition was happening.

I know that it is customary for people who don’t like musicals to point out that it makes no sense for people to start bursting into song and dance, and though that may be mostly true, the editor and director could have done a better job a couple of times to keep from jarring even the fans of the genre out of the story.

Start a Fire

So, to delve into the themes of the movie, I’m going to be discussing all major spoilers; so, if you want to wait until after you’ve seen the movie for yourself, now is the time to quit reading and go watch it first (though, to be fair, you’ve had a whole year).

OK, if everyone else is ready because you don’t mind spoilers, you aren’t planning to watch it, or you already have, we’ll continue.

Mia and Sebastian are two dreamers in Los Angeles that are working to see their dreams come true. Mia is an aspiring actress working as a barista on a movie lot, worried about how people (especially casting directors) feel about her performance. Sebastian is a jazz pianist that could care less what people think of his performance as long as he gets to play “real” jazz. Mia struggles to keep her job between auditions, and Sebastian struggles to play what people will actually pay for instead of the jazz he longs to play.

They start off rocky for their differences, one stuck in the past and one looking to the future. Mia even drives a Prius while Sebastian cruises in a classic car. They eventually fall in love for little more reason than that they bump into each other enough times and they recognize that they are both dreamers.

Sebastian encourages Mia to stop auditioning so much for other people’s parts and write one of her own, while she pushes him to open the club he dreams of in the spot where an old classic club has become a “samba and tapas” joint he abhors. She also nudges him toward changing the hypothetical name of the club: he wants to name it “Chicken on a Stick” as an insider jazz reference, while she just wants to name it “Seb’s” because she wants it to sound cool and be successful. They are off to a pretty good start, relationship-wise.

Then Sebastian overhears Mia defending his little-to-no employment status and his dream of the future club, and he decides it’s time to “grow up.” He takes a job in a jazz-pop fusion band run by an old friend who once cut him out of a deal. The band is on tour, and offers a large salary and merchandising contract—a dream for another musician, but something that goes against everything Sebastian feels about the purity of jazz.

He lets Mia know he’ll be working on tour with little more information than which city he’ll be in next. She stays back in L.A. working on her one-woman show, until she gets a chance to see him play at one of their tour venues. She is immediately taken aback at what she sees him playing in front of a cheering crowd. When he later surprises her with a visit back home in L.A., she confronts him about playing something he doesn’t like.

Then she asks when he’ll finally be able to stop this cycle of touring/recording with the band to open his place like he always dreamed. When it seems there is no real stopping point, even though he truly does not love what he’s doing, their relationship begins to fall apart. He misses her one-night show for a photoshoot with the band. After the lackluster reception her play gets from its tiny audience, she finally gives up and flees all the way back to her small hometown.

Sebastian gets a moment of redemption when he tracks her down at her parents place to let her know that a casting director loved the show and wanted to see her about a project. He forces her to overcome her reservations and see what this project might be, a project which ends up being to write and star in a film project in Paris; one that will take some time to complete.

The couple is reconciled, but Sebastian is still on a touring contract and she would have to leave the country to follow her dream. They profess undying love for each other, and part ways.

The story skips 5 years to see Mia, having achieved her dream with her face on a billboard, and getting coffee from another barista in the same shop where she used to work. She goes home to a child and is even married, but not to Sebastian; her husband is another man who seems warm and supportive.

They head out for a night with friends but are hindered by traffic that leads them to another part of town. As they are about to head home for the night, the husband hears music down the sidewalk and they decide to check it out.

Mia freezes near the entrance, seeing a sign for Seb’s. They grab a seat while the band plays a rousing piece of jazz that Sebastian fully endorses at the end of the set. As he goes to start playing himself he catches Mia’s familiar face in the crowd.

He plays a song that was established earlier in the movie as “theirs,” while she starts to fantasize about a different life. One where he was nicer to her when they first met; one where he followed her to Paris and played clubs there while she became famous; where they had a child together and they were married sitting in some club after dinner listening to other people playing jazz.

A Lovely Night

It is a sad note for such a nice musical to end on. Two people have achieved their dreams—dreams they probably would not have accomplished save for their mutual passion and encouragement. There’s a couple of ways to look at the message of this story, and it probably speaks well of the writers, editors and director that you can read more than one out of it.

There’s a hint of a “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” or “you can’t have everything” lesson on the surface. Right next to it is a tale about choosing carefully and making sure your priorities are straight because you might regret losing something more than you enjoy gaining something else. Still beneath those is another about persistence and hard work getting you exactly what you wanted.

Your measure of success can completely change how melancholy or hopeful you feel once this story ends.

Sebastian and Mia worked hard and achieved their dreams. But they didn’t arrive there together. Even in Mia’s fantasy, it seemed like only she achieved her dream, while Sebastian came along for the ride.

Would they both have been happier that way? Would she later finance his dream, or would he stay home with the baby? It’s not a terribly new tale: people getting exactly what they set out for and being filled with regret when they achieve it.

King Darius, who sent Daniel into the lion’s den, was very distraught that the satraps had tricked him into sentencing his good friend and confidant to what was meant as a death sentence.

Jacob worked a long and hard 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, only to be given her sister Leah and an arrangement to work another 7 years to keep Rachel. Then he was very successful with raising his relative’s cattle that led to hostility as he tried to leave. Between the two wives it depicts Rachel as somewhat jealous, over dramatic, and underhanded to an extent—the sort of woman who would resort to stealing idols and lying about it. Then she died giving birth to his youngest son.

Had Jacob just stuck with Leah, he might have had less heartache and achieved greater success; but he valued Rachel over those things. Darius valued respect, but not more than he valued Daniel.

In the Bible we see over and over again where people should value their relationships more highly than other pursuits; so it comes as no surprise that most people watching the ending of La La Land will be sad for seeing it, but not unfamiliar with the story.

Ultimately, let it not be just to sadden your evening, but a reminder that even our wildest dreams aren’t really worth it when a higher value relationship is lost in the process. The most important relationship being the one with your creator, of course; but don’t neglect your spouse, family, friends, and everyone else.

That’s a lot of relationships to value, but each one is worth it. And a lot better than pining for those relationships later, daydreaming over jazz about what might have been.

Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture.

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