The reviews you’ve read are true. La La Land is magical, a two-hour time-lapse in a Los Angeles seen through rose-colored glasses, where all the city’s landmarks come alive in the lovely haze of twilight. It would seem that a nostalgia-steeped, cotton candy musical is just what the doctor ordered to stave off the gloom of an incredibly shitty year.
We can’t seem to catch a break. And neither can Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), the star-crossed lovers at the heart of director Damien Chazelle’s Technicolor triumph. She is an aspiring actress-turned-playwright; he is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club. A few have commented on the naiveté of their clichéd aspirations. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker film critic, observes:
“Notice how the hero and the heroine of the movie, in line with its title, subsist on fantasies instead of careers, conforming to a chase-your-dream credo that is not so much traditional as antique.
Ahem. Since when did dreams become antique? Aren’t we living in an era when fantasy-subsisting youths, otherwise known as the Millennial generation, run the show? Chazelle himself, 31 and a Harvard graduate, is arguably a paragon of the dream-chasers Mia and Sebastian represent. His script for Whiplash first surfaced on The Black List, an annual compilation of the best screenplays never made, and the subsequent feature film became the indie breakout of 2014, premiering at Sundance and going on to win three Academy Awards.
Chazelle now seems poised for Hollywood greatness. We haven’t seen a critical darling like La La Land in years. The hype cycle is well underway, whispers of a sweep at The Oscars are already spreading, and reviewers can’t stop swooning. “Sheer cinematic bliss.” “Soaring and gorgeous.” “Something extraordinary.” “They don’t make films like this anymore.”
Liza Batkin at Broadly may be the lone voice brave enough to question the movie’s bright candy coating. She warns against the film’s “dangerous, aimless optimism,” lest we slip into an escapist existence where we tune out the awful in the hope that it will all be over soon. There’s a reason musicals like The Gold Diggers of 1933 (whose title song was “We’re in the Money”) and The Wizard of Oz won over audiences in the 1930s during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Batkin ultimately comes to this worrisome conclusion:
The sort of hope that the movie inspires is, ultimately, narcissistic and exceptionalist. If Mia and Sebastian each manage to make their dream a reality, then so might I, we say to ourselves. If Mia’s face can end up plastered on a billboard, then so might ours…What kinds of “lights that shine” are we, depressed and disappointed American liberals, “chasing”?
Maybe my head is too high up in the clouds to see clearly, but isn’t that the point? Sure, ambitions that don’t match up with one’s talents are certainly ill-advised. Chazelle himself knows a thing or two about that; having studied music, he returned to filmmaking when he realized he’d never be a great musician. But to answer Batkin’s question, the light I’m chasing is a world where I believe progress is still possible and the right side of history will prevail. It may take a hell of a lot of work (not just daydreams full of hot air), but that’s what hope is for: fuel to keep you going.
The beauty of La La Land abides in its unwavering belief in the power of dreams. Yes, dreams are for the foolish. The movie says as much in Mia’s “Audition” song: “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.” Yet for those who actually realize them, it’s an absolute necessity. Where would we be without our dreams?
When I was teenager growing up in the suburbs of L.A., I got a summer job at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park. My original incentive was getting to see all the shows for free as an usher, but age requirements relegated me to parking lot duty. The saving grace of that job (besides making $10 an hour, which would have been a windfall for any high schooler) were the nights I worked the provisional handicapped lot up the hill at the Griffith Observatory. From that vantage point you could hear some of the music floating up from the amphitheater, but I only had eyes for the twinkling lights of the valley below. The 16-year-old me had plenty of silly dreams, but if I hadn’t had the courage to pursue them, I might still be standing in that parking lot, wearing a reflective safety vest and waving a parking wand, waiting for the stars to come to me.
Today I make a living doing creative work, a field in which everything starts off as a kernel of an idea, a vision, a yearning. “A bit of madness is key / To give us new colors to see / Who knows where it will lead us? / And that’s why they need us.” Dreams are our lifeline to creativity and to the future. Films, in a way, are dreams realized. Their power comes from activating something inside us we didn’t even know existed. Art has the singular ability to make us feel and experience things we can’t put into words. To even attempt such a feat, one has to be able to dream.
As a country, we’re still coming off the high of a decade that ushered in Obama’s stubborn belief in hope and change. We witnessed the passing of Steve Jobs, who revolutionized our lives with the iPhone and told us to “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” The impossible started to feel within reach. Many of us believed, perhaps foolishly, that we’d be electing the first woman president in American history this past November. Sometimes dreams die and hearts break. That’s part of the bargain. So, while we stand at the precipice of an era that will be marked by Trump and his cronies, a terrifying future that has yet to unfold, maybe what we need most right now is a reminder that dreams are alive and well, somewhere, somehow.
Parts of this essay originally appeared in Vice. Photos by Dale Robinette.