There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. Oscar Wilde
Films about backing one’s dreams appeal to us all. This one comes with a disclaimer in the title: La La Land is where dreams become reality; it’s not the real world. For most of us, there is compromise and complication, along with a large dose of the basic machinery of life. But even in La La Land, (is it a play on Los Angeles/LA?) success is not without cost.
The opening scene – a traffic jam in LA transformed into an exuberant dance sequence involving hundreds of people and cars – sets the mood. In this film, writer and director Damien Chazelle has managed to simultaneosly sustain optimism and probe doubt, intermingling a love story with two creative journeys.
The friction between what we want and what is possible, and the role of risk in our lives is beautifully teased out in this film. Two creative people – a musician, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and an actress Mia (Emma Stone) are living in LA trying to get their dreams off the ground. (Interestingly they never refer to her as an actor). It’s hard work. Six years of waitressing and auditioning have led nowhere for Mia, and Sebastian has just been fired from his job playing trite background tunes in a restaurant because he couldn’t stick to the playlist.
The score, including original pieces by Justin Hurwitz is mesmerising, and the choreography makes you want to join in. But what this film is really about is the price we are willing to pay for our dreams. And the price we ask from other people. It’s clear from the outset that these two are extremely talented. Is that enough? It’s a perennial question. Does the cream always rise to the top? Sooner or later, or even often, there will be that moment of despair and desperation. The inevitable question that has probably been asked many times by others, but finally needs an answer from oneself: – am I really good enough at this?
Ideally when that dark moment comes your way, someone is beside you believing in your dream. This is the person who will probably be asked to pay – some more, some less, but at significant cost – for sharing the dream. How much and at what personal cost? In this story, that question is addressed in an utterly believable way.
History is replete with examples of the sacrifices that have been made for artists’ dreams. Van Gogh’s brother Theo, sent funds, letters of support and networking opportunities his way. Rodin’s wife Camille Claudel, was a talented sculptor, almost completely eclipsed by her husband. Vermeer had eleven children and completed a mere two paintings per year; the effect of his work on his family life must have been significant. For Mia and Sebastian, what they can give to each other is weighed against what they must give to their own dream.
Yeats writes in The Choice
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
One of the lovely things about this film is its ability to leave happiness incomplete. The world doesn’t end if you don’t get everything you want. In this sense, this movie is not about La La Land at all, but about ordinary lives. Getting some things is a wonder; can we count it as enough? The mixture of wistfulness, longing, but also of acceptance in the final moments of this film suggest that perhaps, compromise is not the enemy after all. Perhaps the all or nothing stakes in which we tend to cast life, and in which we certainly cast stories, are really the stuff of la la land, but not of La La Land.