This is not a review, this is Overthinking. Here I provoke people to think about the philosophies and ideas in movies, that often endure in our minds once the credits have rolled.
Movie: La La Land (2016)
Rating: PG13 for some strong language.
Runtime: 2hrs 8min
Synopsis: An aspiring actress meets an aspiring jazz club owner. But as they push each other towards their dreams, is it possible they are driving themselves apart?
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, JK Simons, Tom Everett Scott
Directed: Damien Chazelle
Production: Summit Entertainment
Topics for discussion (see below): pursuing your dreams, soul mates, saving jazz, the gospel, dying to self, compromise
[SPOILER WARNING – PLOT DETAILS REVEALED][SPOILER WARNING – MAY REVEAL PLOT DETAILS]
Quick review: La La Land is a quirky, innovative and entirely enjoyable musical romance. It won 6 of its 14 Academy Award nominations, and all of it’s 7 Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture, setting a new record for Golden Globes won by a single film. There is barely any foul language, no violence and no sex scenes. There is kissing, and a couple shares a bed before they are married. But on the whole, it is a nostalgic, relatively innocent and remarkably unique look at the struggle to make it in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts.
On the surface, it is a fairly straight forward movie. But if you’ve watched it with friends or your older children, here are some thoughts that may be interesting to discuss.
When Ryan joins Keith’s band, is he selling out? There is a scene where Mia implies he has betrayed his dreams or even betrayed Jazz music itself. Perhaps if he was an Anglican vicar, and the only work available was at a mosque, she would have a point. But the question here comes down to what in life is truly important. He is a musician, and it is a good job. Getting a job is responsible. A dentist who joins a successful practice isn’t considered a sellout because he didn’t start his own thing. A research scientist who studies in one area, but discovers the real money is in another, isn’t a sellout for switching fields. The Bible says, if a man doesn’t work he does not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Bible doesn’t place a high premium of following your dreams. Rather, the focus of scripture is about dying to yourself, giving up earthly ambitions and desires, to better serve God’s purpose, for eternal reward. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). While the world sees success as doing your own thing and reaching your dreams, the Bible values character above achievements. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Keith asks Sebastian, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Their conversation about changing Jazz music to roll with the times. is like the one that exists in the Christian world concerning the gospel. If people aren’t listening to it anymore, shouldn’t we change it up, to make it more contemporary and appealing. Or alternatively, as Mia suggests over supper, don’t change it, because, “people love what other people are passionate about.” Have you ever been tempted to deliver a sugar coated version of the gospel to a friend, or compromise on truth to win someone over? Are our love for Christ, the authenticity of out faith, and the power of God not enough to demonstrate the beauty of the gospel without compromise? Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
Not getting the girl
In an ending reminiscent of Roman Holiday or The Prisoner of Zenda, the couple chooses not to live happily every after. At least, not together. Ironically, Mia’s first audition involves one side of a phone call where someone she thought loved her tells her they are choosing the other woman. Five years later, the shoe is on the other foot. Mia is married, happily, it seems, and Sebastian finds out, on stage, moments before his performance. The audience, who have been rooting for them to get together, are left with no more satisfaction than the acknowledgement, in a Gene-Kellyesque third-act dance sequence, of what might have been.
This disappointment is very much like real life. Which is maybe why audiences, while loving the movie, have often resented the ending. In a colourful, romantic, musical we expect happily-ever-after. Gene Kelly got the girl, so did Fred Astaire, over and over again. Euan McGregor didn’t, but his director came to fame shooting Romeo and Juliet, so what could he expect? As most of us have experienced, life isn’t like the movies. That’s why we watch movies. For many of us, our first love didn’t turn out to be our true love. And even those who feel they’ve discovered a soul mate, don’t always end up together. Mia left Greg for the pianist in the restaurant, it’s only natural she would leave him for the drummer from That Thing You Do. If your sense of loyalty only goes as far as staying with someone till something better comes along, you don’t understand faithfulness. In the end, Mia does the right thing. As John Piper once said, “How do you know if you’re married to the right person? Short answer: look at the name on your marriage certificate.”
When it comes to choosing who we marry, that is a different story. The Bible warns against being unequally yoked, and on one level that’s what we see here. Two people pulling after completely different dreams. But their’s are not the kind of differences that mean they can’t walk the road together. As Sebastian says of Jazz, “it’s conflict and it’s compromise”, and that’s a great description of any relationship. Liane Davey said in her article for the Harvard Business Review, “If your team agree on everything, working together is pointless”. Partnership needs conflict and compromise. In the movie, we see Mia has a better name for the club than Sebastian. Sebastian is the reason Mia’s career finally takes off. Imagine the possibilities if they’d been less self-obsessed, and tried to make it work! We are so used to seeing celebrity couples fall apart, often because of the pressure of working apart for long periods. So don’t work apart then! Plan your incredibly well-paid job around your marriage, not through the middle of it. In our more normal lives, it may mean earning less to be together more. Is that so bad?
It’s the same with God. You can climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream. But, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). If the audience is disappointed to see Sebastian and Mia grow apart, imagine God’s disappointment over each of his children who goes astray because they give their heart to another god. A job, a sport or hobby, a lover who doesn’t love God. Our excitement at the idea of Mia and Sebastian getting back together is something like what the scripture means when it says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance” (Luke 15:7). While I hope none of us would want Mia to leave her husband, the tantalising glimpse we are given of what might have been, is the ending most of us wanted. So with God. How many people on the day of judgement will see their life’s work go up in smoke and wish they had given up their dreams to rather follow Jesus and be his bride.
The Bible tells us what it truly means to be unequally yoked. Trying to serve God and money (Luke 16:13), trying to serve darkness and light, “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
I happily confess to thoroughly enjoying La La Land and would recommend it to fans and non-fans of musicals alike. But this bittersweet tale should remind us, there is one relationship always worth compromising for. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
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