Following the 2016 Presidential Election, I penned an open letter hinting at how the reveal of the results was a formative event for me: “For my entire life, I’ve refused to see myself as a loving person because I was told that I am not.” Watching La La Land was a strangely similar experience. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cried through at least 50% of the movie–and most of those tears were of joy.
La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s followup to his masterful Whiplash, a movie that was still somehow underappreciated even though it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won in three other categories. Like Whiplash, it follows an artist on his quest for greatness, this time portraying the emotional trials and tribulations presented to him by our culture rather than himself. Set in Los Angeles, the movie starts in a traffic jam, ends in a dark and dingy jazz club, and visits almost every other iconic Hollywood locale in between. The purpose is not to further consecrate these images, but subtly critique them through presenting an alternative viewpoint on what it means to be an artist.
The artist-hero in this story is Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, an uber-talented jazz pianist who dreams of opening a club like the establishments in the New Orleans of yore. Instead, he’s stuck playing Christmas songs in a restaurant for an overbearing manager…and in traffic behind an aspiring actress who is more focused on running lines for an audition than driving. In both of these moments, he meets Emma Stone’s Mia, the aforementioned actress who is really just a barista on the Warner Bros lot. An intense love affair begins as the two bond over their struggles and support each other’s dreams in a way no one ever has.
The power and importance of their relationship, and its significance in the story’s theme, is understood through contrasting it with a a scene in which Sebastian is being doubted and derided. During a visit from his sister, Sebastian finds his dreams and drive under attack (much like Andrew in the dinner scene in Whiplash). They discuss how Sebastian had money stolen from him and squabbled over their differing word choices in describing the event. His sister uses plain language. He uses exaggerated language. (Note: I don’t remember the exact words they used or I would include them.) She tells him his word choice is romantic. He shoots back, “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” It’s a challenge that is as much directed at “La La Land” itself as it his sister–and the entire movie embodies this challenge.
As Sebastian and Mia dream, create, fail, fall, and rise, Chazelle shows us not what that journey is, but what it means. His goal is not to show us reality as it is when you’re an aspiring artist, but what it could be when you dare to dream about to create with that reality. And with that approach, his directing defies expectations to create something new, something beautiful. In many ways, he is the fool that Sebastian is. He dreamed it all in his head and uncompromisingly made it a reality, not succumbing to the aesthetic and philosophical pressures of the people around him that consider themselves the real dreamers but really do nothing more than wish reality were different than it is.
Take, for instance, “Imagine” by John Lennon. Though it doesn’t appear in the film, a critique of it could’ve been seamlessly slid in next to the writer character who’s trying to turning Goldilocks & The Three Bears intro a franchise. In the song, Lennon describes himself as a dreamer because he imagines there’s no countries, possessions, greed, or hunger and there is a brotherhood of man. In other words, he dreams not of how to make what is into what he wants, but of what isn’t and existing there. This perspective is how we commonly conceive of artists and dreamers. It is why they are seen as tortured soul–you can’t ever be fulfilled if what you want isn’t possible. Except such imaginary images aren’t dreams. They’re delusions, and for too long we’ve allowed the two to be used synonymously.
Chazelle and Sebastian (and Mia, to a certain extent) challenge this notion by dreaming of how to mold what is. Sebastian understands the current state of jazz and wants to subvert and revert it in order to achieve his goal. The torture of his soul comes not from being unable to buck reality but from being unrecognized by the people around him. It is in this pain that he and Mia find understanding in each other, but it is through their joy of creation that they travel toward the movie’s saccharine and complex climax.
And it is through that joy that Chazaelle finds his audience for this movie–the real fools, like myself, who dream and recognize their passion and struggle portrayed on the screen.