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Love in 2nd place

Picture a multi-lane highway with traffic at a standstill under a blazing sun and a young woman getting out of her car and beginning to sing and dance. And then others join in, not merely dancing but gambolling, leaping and tumbling over car roofs and bonnets. That is the joyous opening sequence of the much acclaimed new film musical La La Land.

Ann Benton, Guildford

Figure Image
Gosling and Stone | photo: Dale Robinette

Damien Chazelle
Cert 12A 128 minutes

When the music stops and the cars begin to move, a minor road-rage incident brings in a strand of reality. This is Los Angeles (LA) where they love a big opening number – everybody sings and acts and dances – but meanwhile thousands of thin, beautiful Hollywood wannabees dream of making it, attend auditions and hope for call-backs. We meet two such, played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling: Mia, an aspiring actress-cum-playwright who works in a coffee shop and Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist who makes a buck playing tacky tunes in restaurants and bars. So far, so Hollywood cliché.

In classic rom-com style, Seb and Mia take a decided dislike to each other before falling in love. All is sweetness and starlight and many-splendoured dance routines. This is familiar musicals territory – a charming and undemanding cinema experience. The songs are surprisingly tender and the performances are extremely engaging.

Note of tension

The first note of real tension emerges when Seb is accused by Mia of letting go of ‘the dream’, of selling out for mere money. This is a big no-no in la la land. Later on, the tables are turned when Mia gives up her ‘dream’ because of a crisis of confidence. It is this more than anything that fouls up the relationship, and the message here departs from the tradition of the great musicals of the 20th century. In those, dreams come crashing down and the hero or heroine emerges from the debris chastened, sadder but wiser, to recognise what really matters. In la la land what really matters is personal self-fulfilment and the glory (spot the lie!) that will inevitably accompany that.

Another stock-in-trade of the classic musicals is the dream sequence. Towards the end of La La Land one of these occurs, triggered by a musical memory and the two protagonists depict in dance what might have been. Regrets? Reunion? No more spoilers.

This film and its stars have already won countless accolades and will win more, deservedly so. And why would Hollywood not believe, confess and celebrate its own myths? But a thinking Christian might leave the cinema not uplifted but distressed that the idols of this present age – personal fulfilment, beauty, success, celebrity – are so promoted and vindicated. And the greatest thing is not love – not in La La Land.

Weep for a culture which, while being sentimental about love (whether human or divine), undervalues it and chases vanities. And whoever does that is la la leaner for it.