La La Land

I rode L.A.’s Metro rail to see La La Land, from Fuller’s campus in Pasadena to a couple of blocks from the Arclight Dome theater in Hollywood. I love riding the Metro, because it’s the best way I know to experience the full multicultural beauty of Los Angeles, a city without a majority population (no one ethnic group makes up at least fifty percent of the population). It’s exciting and a little intimidating to be reminded that I’m just one shade among many in this city. The Metro makes me want to get off at every stop and explore every neighborhood along the way to my destination, tasting the cuisine and listening to the languages being spoken.

La La Land begins with a traffic jam that erupts into a musical number where Los Angeles’ car-bound population extolls LA’s blue skies while dancing on top of their vehicles. A few minutes later, La La Land’s heroine, Mia (Emma Stone), sings a song with her diverse roommates about wanting or not wanting to go to a party that night. They each wear different, brightly-colored dresses and twirl around hoping to get discovered and become famous. Both scenes spotlight the multicultural energy that fuels LA life. Both scenes are tremendous.

But then La La Land settles into its main narrative about two white people trying to make it in their respective professions and maintain their romance. I have nothing against white people, but La La Land’s opening numbers—and my Metro ride to the theater—made me keenly aware of the missing multiculturality in the rest of the film. Sure, Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) sister marries a black man, Sebastian plays in an all-African American band, and their nanny is Latino, but that’s all set dressing to this otherwise all-white story. Bringing in a more multiethnic cast—or even a single supporting character—would have enabled the filmmakers to include multiethnic music and dance styles as well. Los Angeles’ diversity is the life-blood of the city, and La La Land is anemic in this regard. Sure, La La Land is an ode to Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, but that’s no reason to repeat yesteryear’s ethnic oversights (to be as charitable as possible toward our ancestors).

I exited the Metro at the Hollywood and Vine station across from the Pantages Theater. I was surprised to discover a full-size X-Wing fighter occupying Hollywood Boulevard outside the Pantages. I forgot that the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was to happen that night, and the entire road was being set-up for the event. Along with the other hundred or so people who happened by the X-Wing that morning, I was thrilled to encounter this bit of movie magic.

La La Land is full of movie magic too. This actually seems to be the point of the film – to encapsulate and communicate the allure of Hollywood and the fame it promises. Mia and Sebastian are both obsessed with success, though they are each eager to define success on their own terms. Their co-joined struggle is between success in their own eyes (positioned as fidelity to artistic vision) and success in the eyes of their friends, family, and strangers (positioned as financial security). La La Land uses the conventions of the Hollywood musical (your Singin’ in the Rains, your Top Hats, your Busby Berkeley bathing ballets, even your Umbrellas of Cherbourgs – it covers all the hits) to denote that special thing that happens when top-notch entertainment takes over and you find yourself elevated beyond your moment into a moment of aesthetic grace outside of time. In moments, La La Land works like a charm.

But lurking just below La La Land’s slick surface is the counter-jinx too – the self-centeredness, the delusion, the unkind ambition, the propensity to cultural colonialism, the greed, and the superficiality that is also typical of Hollywood. Walking south from Hollywood Boulevard to Sunset and my intended movie theater, I walked along a portion of the “Walk of Fame,” the stars in the sidewalk featuring the names of media personalities now passed. These stars are stained with spit, grease, and blood. Mendicants make them their beds. A whole portion of the sidewalk had been torn up to make room for a new apartment complex. They call it “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” for a reason. Even if Mia and Sebastian achieve great success, they will fall from the heavens, and we will walk upon their names.

As in Damien Chazelle’s former film, Whiplash, the dark side of artistic ambition is apparent, though the movie itself seems to willingly look away from it and focus on the fame instead. Its choice between inner success and outer success is a false one. Neither pursuit will bring happiness. True freedom is found in abandoning the pursuit of fame entirely and being content with the work itself, whether anyone ever notices or not. Nothing about Mia or Sebastian’s characters suggests to me that they ever practice their respective crafts. They just expect the world to recognize their abilities and applaud them. They don’t work. They chase fame.

To consider Whiplash again—a clear partner film to La La Land given their similar themes—at least we see Andrew practicing his drumming in that film. Sure, he does it to win the approval of Fletcher, but at least he practices. I like to imagine a future where Andrew matures beyond needing anyone’s approval and learns to love just drumming. La La Land plays as if Andrew never learned anything (a fair take given Whiplash’s ending). He just internalized Fletcher’s abuse, changed his name to Sebastian, picked up the piano, and moved to the West Coast.

I don’t mean to pick on La La Land too much. It’s a fun movie that wants more than anything to put a smile on your face. It succeeds. But our culture is obsessed with rising, and a preoccupation with personal advancement is incompatible with love of others and of God. Movies like La La Land are simply dealing in the only dichotomy they’ve ever been given – work for yourself or work for profit. There is another way. Work for God. Be faithful to God’s calling on your life, whatever it may be.

I know I’ve gone long on this review, but this is very important to me. The virus of fame infects our ecclesial institutions too and teaches us to be dissatisfied with the lot appointed us. We lust after spotlights, celebrity, keynotes, and lectureships. We highlight the headliners and only rarely celebrate the servants. Every aspect of our culture trains us to pursue popularity, so we privilege it in our churches too in hopes of gathering a bigger crowd. It usually works, because that’s what we’ve been taught to value, not because there is any inherent value in popularity.

Meanwhile, Jesus washed feet, the apostles were martyred, and Paul called himself “the least of all God’s people.” The saints are saints not because they were or are famous. They are saints because they were faithful. We’re missing that. Fame is the currency of our contemporary kingdoms. Faithfulness is the currency of the Kingdom of God.

This is a bit of theological course-correction we can gain from artists. Every artist I’ve ever admired in any discipline parrots the same advice: Love the work itself. Get up and do it every day. Take what opportunities come your way. If you truly love the work, and no opportunities ever come, you’ll still be happy, because you’ll be doing what you love. This reminds me of Paul’s charge to Timothy when people in his congregation were contending with each other for prominence. Paul likened Timothy’s work to a soldier doing his duties, an athlete in training (notably not an athlete in competition), and a farmer working diligently in his fields. Paul called Timothy to faithfulness and promised him the Lord would guarantee his work. Be faithful to your calling, your vocation, and trust God to be faithful to you.

La La Land, like Whiplash before it, tip-toes up to the point of prizing work over renown but then pivots away from it and settles for celebrity. It’ll win Best Picture. But starlets aren’t supposed to be our exemplars. Jesus is, and he didn’t walk red carpets. He walked the dusty road to Calvary, faithful to his calling to the end, preaching forgiveness even as he hung on the cross, committing the success of his work to God even when God seemed to abandon him. I’m sorry. I know that’s not a song anyone wants to sing along with, but it’s the only tune that carries us through to the end.

You might also find these reviews of La La Land helpful:

Christianity Today
Larsen on Film