Tuesday, January 24, 2017

If you can't trust a great musical to tell you what life's all about, what can you trust: La La Land and selling out

Lest I be hauled in like Aziz Ansari in his SNL sketch for not loving La La Land, I'll just say up front: this is a great movie. It reminds me of Steve Martin's line about the movie Chicago. In a year where there was a lot of controversy about cheating to gain an advantage in Oscar awards, Martin claimed Chicago pulled the dirtiest trick of all: "They made a really great movie that everyone liked."

It's a simple musical about staying true to your dreams...

The movie is bookended by two big numbers: "Another Day of Sun," and "Fools Who Dream." The first one is an exuberant impromptu flash mob of struggling entertainers in a traffic jam belting out their indefatigable beliefs that they will make Hollywood bend to their wills to become stars:

I'm reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights
that shine
And when they let you down
You'll get up off the ground

 In Mia's (Emma Stone) big finale, she affirms her faith in the meaning of chasing her dreams as part of the audition where she finally breaks through:

Here's to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that ache
Here's to the mess we make

...except that it's not

It's what's in between those two numbers that made the movie great, though. There's an almost-too-sweet love story played with aggressive cuteness by Stone and enviable cool by Gosling (as Sebastian). It's so sweet, I can't even hate it for being too sweet. After they fall in love, they attempt to understand one anothers' dreams and support each other, but both are sledding uphill for a while.

Mia, having gone through a wonderful scene early on in which she manages to summon up instant pathos from inside herself to cry convincingly at an audition only to have the scene callously interrupted in a manner destined to make her cry for real, faces the reality that she perhaps ought to give up. She posits to Sebastian that she ought to have been a lawyer. "Like the world needs more lawyers," Sebastian answers. Mia's response is forged from a thousand rehearsals with no call-backs: "Well, it doesn't need more actresses." It's these kinds of exchanges that, as the Village Voice put it, "movingly weight the film with adult loss and disappointment."

Selling out within in the La La Land universe

It's Sebastian who breaks through first, thanks in part to Mia and a friend Keith who help him to move out of his rigid conception of success. Mia first chips away at his stubborn dream to own one particular jazz bar and renovate it into the terribly named Chicken on a Stick, a jazz bar that also sells chicken. Keith convinces Sebastian to come on the road with him and play good music that just isn't traditional jazz, because what made the original giants of jazz great was their willingness to look to the future, to embrace change.

It's all going great until the movie's best scene, a classic case of two people talking past each other. Mia is wondering how long Sebastian will be on the road, when he will parley his financial success into buying his dream jazz bar. Sebastian, confused and hurt because he thinks Mia is accusing him of having sold out, says he thought he was supposed to do this, that he should have been happy to be on a stage where people were finally happy to hear him play. "The difference between selling out and breaking through is not always clear, and “La La Land” is not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise," as the New York Times put it.

Did Sebastian sell out? Did he just make a logical course correction? The question gathers more urgency as Mia's push to live her dream by writing and performing in her own one person show ends in a humiliating failure. She goes home, convinced the dream is over.

Deus (dea?) ex cantione--whatever the Latin is for an improbable extraction from difficulty by way of a song

Mia's dream is resurrected from the dead, though, when Sebastian, against all odds, gets a call from a casting agent looking for Mia. She saw Mia's one-woman show (she must have somehow gone unnoticed among the nine people in the crowd). Mia rushes back to Hollywood, sings the big "Fools who Dream" number at an audition, and goes off to Paris to become famous. For some reason, she doesn't end up with Sebastian, even though he drove all the way to Idaho or something to bring her back to the audition and found her without knowing her address.

That might be how the movie seeks to keep its emotional authenticity. Not everything is a perfect happy ending. Sacrifices were made. Sebastian has his jazz bar, but his special song is now kept in reserve, only to be brought out one night when he sees Mia, now married to someone else, in the crowd.

So what exactly is selling out?

We never see Mia's struggling friends again after a certain point. Presumably, some have gotten jobs as bankers or teachers or married well. There isn't room for them all to succeed. I once knew a guy who worked in receiving at a crappy drug store for $8.25 an hour as he neared 40. He played bass in a metal band. Last I saw him, he still hadn't given up the dream. He lived with his mom, which is fine; there are sacrifices for that kind of commitment.

Much like Thoreau's experiment in Walden, there are certain levels of artistic commitment that just can't be sustained if a family is involved. By the end, Mia has both family and career, but the career came first, and luckily while she was still young.

La La Land doesn't try to force too many answers. It allows itself out of answering tough questions, even the tough questions the movie itself has raised, by allowing Mia to improbably luck out. It's a musical, so it's allowed to do that.

Me, I get up and go to work every day in the white hot center of what you might call plan B. I still work at writing. I've written what I think is a novel worth reading. I've written short stories, and some have even been published. But I'm a few steps beyond Sebastian playing pop funk for money when it comes to abandoning the artistic high road.

Do we need artists?

Mia sings in her big number that "a bit of madness is key/to give us new colors to see/Who knows where they lead us?/And that's why they need us." It's sort of an unexpected thesis out of no where: artists don't just do what they do according to their own lights they reach for; they do it because it is their essential social function to do something perceived as possibly useless. This very act is restorative to society, the "they" who need "us." This might be reaching a bit too far. It's enough to do it for your own reasons. No need to invent messianic, selfless reasons for what you do.

This is where I leave off. The movie is beautiful enough for me to let it have its cake and eat it too, to both present the struggle honestly and to blink at the moment of truth. Maybe it's best not to think too deeply on the possibility of deep and final failure to achieve one's dreams, to be ever like Han Solo crying "Never tell me the odds!"


  1. Not sure of the exact sense you want, but the phrase should be either deus (dea?) ex cantione or ex carmine.

  2. I guess I was going for a bit of goof-off Latin indicating Deus ex machina by way of a song.

  3. but get the grammar right.