While I have never used this space to place to review films or books I’ve been asked to write a short reflection on a movie for my Film & Theology class at Fuller Theological Seminary. I was free to choose any 2017 Oscar nominated movie for this assignment and I chose La La Land for a few basic reasons. First, it was a movie I knew my wife and I could watch together (always the biggest task to accomplish!) and it was a movie billed as a true musical, of which I am generally a big fan.
The movie revolves around a struggling jazz musician, Sebastian, whose audacious dream is to one day own a jazz club which pays an homage to the pure jazz of the old days. He struggles to find his place among a world looking for quick money and new trends. Alongside Sebastian we meet Mia who is a charismatic actress and playwright who is finding the superficiality of the “in crowd” along with the barrage of “no’s” to be weighing heavy on her hopes of ever hearing a “yes”. After a chance meeting where both Sebastian and Mia find themselves in a moment of internal compromise, Sebastian is playing in an 80’s cover band and Mia flirts and charms her way through Hollywood bigwigs, both our protagonists find hints of the beauty and “purity” of art they had given up finding in Hollywood. The story continues as Sebastian and Mia must continually make decisions that pit their individualistic dreams of owning the last bastion of pure jazz in pop culture world and that of a world class playwright against their commitment to and love to each other. In the end, Sebastian hits the road in hopes of catching his big break which ultimately leading to the big break between him and Mia as Mia then has space to dig into her own separate path as a writer. La La Land seems to be headed toward an end with a great “What if?” between Sebastian and Mia, but just as their story together began with chance meeting, so does their story conclude with such a meeting. Mia, out with her husband, ends up jumping into a club for late night drinks only to find it is Sebastian playing on stage. Once Sebastian catches Mia’s eye, he plays “their song” one last time and we are taking through a full look of what life “could have looked like” had Sebastian and Mia sacrificed their dreams for each other. It would have been a good life but a much different life. The song, and movie, ends we a wink and a smile as both Sebastian and Mia seem to have found their closure and settled into the reality of life as it is rather than the pain of life as it could have been.
There were a few points in this movie that I found myself surprisingly drawn into emotionally and deeply connected with the reality that was being portrayed. On an emotional level we see two characters who are in the heart of the artistic world, Hollywood, and have dreams of grandeur and yet the truth of who they are, who they desire to be, and they was in which the long to accomplish this “being” runs runs against the grains of the expectations and norms of their colleagues. It is nearly the clarity of Sebastian’s vision that does him in as he fervently desires to pursue the essential purity of his craft at a heart level yet on a pragmatic level he compromises in hopes that one step back will lead to two steps forward. I am very aware of this reality and feeling within myself and I see it in other people all the time. At some level, we all have dreams, passions, and talents that we desire to follow through to their fullest potential. There are parts of us who simply desire to move above the cheap, pretend, quick-fix, and superficial realities of our world and exist in a space that may not be popular but it is valuable, true, long-awaited, and authentic to who we have been created to be. How are we to live, thrive, and succeed in a world where art and honesty are always trumped by popularity and pragmatism?
We also see the reality on an interpersonal level of living in a tensions between pursuing the dreams and passions I have for myself and making room with my heart for the pursuit of the dreams and passions of the person we love. In our world we often feel that making room for someone else in our life means giving up room for myself or vice versa. Yet I would contend that love, when rooted in a place of humility and self-sacrifice for the edification of the other, not only creates room for the one we love but widens the views and reaches of our passions and dreams. I see this all over the Bible! Jesus told Peter that the church will be built on him but Peter hadn’t considered non-Jews would be a part of the church. So when Jesus told Peter, “Do not call unclean that which I have called clean,” Peter chose to put his own ideas of what his dream would look like for the sake of others. Then tada! He realizes the Church will be a people of all nations!
That said, there is the truth, as we see in the powerful final scene of La La Land, that there are times when our loves and/or our dreams just don’t work out the way we had hoped they would. We are wise to pay attention to they way in which Sebastian and Mia are able to acknowledge what could have been, “bless” the reality of how things have turned out, and settle into the way things are rather live tormented by the wonder of what could have been. This is a grace beyond grace for and from ourselves, others, and the One we believe is behind it all.