The hit musical La La Land recently tied 1997 blockbuster Titanic for the most Academy Award nominations ever (14). It’s certainly a movie worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, even if you, like me, haven’t always been a fan of musicals.
I grew up watching lots of musicals in my family and never quite “got it.” I mean, people don’t normally just break into song like that. As I have aged and come to appreciate the interior life more, I’ve also come to appreciate previously unappreciated genres of art, including musicals. As an artistic device, having people break into song and dance is a creative way of giving the viewer a glimpse into the interior life of the characters.
La La Land is a touching love story. It focuses on two struggling artists, musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), whose paths cross at a time of desperation in both of their careers. At first, they seem complete opposites. Sebastian struggles with the emptiness of Los Angeles (“L.A. is a town where people worship everything and value nothing,” he says in one of the film’s best lines). He yearns to open a jazz club that remains pure to jazz’s wild and adventurous core. Meanwhile, Mia is ready to pack in her underachieving acting career after several years of humbling audition failures. She secretly desires to write and produce a one-woman play, but her confidence is too shaken to pursue that dream. Opposites attract and they soon find they lift each other, filling in each other’s cracks. A passionate romance ensues.
At the end, La La Land takes you for a ride you didn’t quite expect. Director Damien Chazelle explores themes of the dreams and hopes we all have for our lives — love certainly being one of the biggest — and the “cost” to attain them. What happens when the person you love has dreams and hopes that may not correspond with your dreams and hopes? Are you able to help that other person pursue them? And what role does love play in all of that?
My favorite scene in the movie is when Mia is auditioning for what seems like one final shot at a movie role. At the audition, Mia learns that the movie has no script yet, so the casting directors ask her just to tell them a story. Caught off guard, she ponders nervously what to do. Then, in a flash of inspiration, she begins to tell a very personal story about how a favorite aunt inspired her. Very creatively, as the story turns to song, we are taken into Mia’s interior experience. The lights dim and the cameras zoom in on her as if no one else is there, but we, the viewers are right there with her, almost “in” her heart.
Until this point, Mia had sung mostly in a tempered falsetto. But during this moment, she begins to unleash her voice with powerful abandon, belting out my favorite line of the movie: “Here’s to the hearts that ache / Here’s to the mess we make.”
We’re often afraid to feel that deep “ache” of our hearts because we intuit that to feel it is to lose control of our nice, orderly lives. Yes, that is correct. In Christian terms, it’s called surrender or abandonment to God. Those who have the courage to feel the abyss of longing in their souls and in their bodies and open it up in complete abandonment to the one who put it there will, indeed, have “messy” lives … but messy in a beautifully hopeful way.
This is one of the great gifts of good art: it unearths the deep and hidden places of our own hearts, giving us permission to feel what’s in there.
Here’s to the hearts that ache!
Questions to ponder: What did you think of La La Land? What happens when the person you love has dreams and hopes that may not correspond with your dreams and hopes? Are you able to help that other person pursue them? And what role does love play in all of that?