La La Land [Damien Chazelle, 2016] is the darling of this year’s film releases so far. The contemporary musical tells the story of two people living in LA and trying to achieve their dreams in a world where everyone is trying to make it.
In a scene fairly early in the film (so not much of a spoiler) Seb [Ryan Gosling] has returned to a job playing the piano in a restaurant. His passion is to play jazz, and to provide a place for others to learn to love jazz. He has a set list to play and tries hard to negotiate with the manager the inclusion of some jazz, but it doesn’t work. As the evening goes on he just cannot resist replacing the well -known Christmas tunes with a piece he loves. And so he gets the sack.
Even Seb slightly regrets this, and tries to talk the manager round. But the manager realises that Seb just cannot help himself. Whatever his intentions when he sits down at the piano stool, eventually he will play the music that he loves no matter what the set list in front of him says. You may or may not have sympathy with Seb. You might think he is an idiot to not just play the set list so that he can keep his job. But, the film suggests, he can only be who he is. The price of being someone else is just too high.
In the competitive world of LA, where, as Seb says, “they worship everything and value nothing” establishing a meaningful life is a challenge, but one that matters. Trying to persuade Seb to reconnect with his dream of opening a jazz bar, Mia [Emma Stone] tells him “people love what other people are passionate about”. Jazz makes Seb tick, it is his passion and whilst following our passions isn’t an excuse not to have to do ordinary things, not following them makes us less than we could be.
How do we know the difference between a pipe dream and a real dream? What’s our vocation and what is just fantasy? In Hollywood, the answer tends to depend on whether it works or not. On whether we get the break that means everything else falls into place. But that isn’t necessarily a good test. Even the things God calls us to do, don’t always work out. Mia doubts whether she is good enough to write plays and to act and wonders whether it was all a pipe dream. Seb tells her “This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”
Our dreams don’t always work out as we thought, and we need to find ways to work out what are real dreams and what are fantasies that are better left as such. And even when we have done that, there’s no guarantee it will be as we expected. When we take the risk of following a dream, discerning a vocation part of the risk is that we might discover we aren’t called in the way that we thought. But we will always find that we are called to something.
Ain’t it Grand, when you’re living in La La Land is from the song La La Land by The Vigilantes of Love.