City of Stars and Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Not only is "La La Land" one of the great musical films of all time, it echoes the same starry eyed dreams of myself, my wife, and countless others who have pursued artistic brilliance and fell short.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (5 out of 5 reels)

As a general rule, it is considered poor technique to write in first person when composing a formal essay or column, and even worse still to write about one’s own personal life. Yet, La La Land is a special case, so I will be breaking both those rules and probably a few others. The film hit far too close to home to pretend I was not personally affected. Not only is it one of the great musical films of all time, it echoes the same starry eyed dreams of myself, my wife Violet, and countless others who have pursued artistic brilliance and fell short. 

Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) meet briefly and curtly during an all too familiar traffic jam on I-405 (they call it the 405 because it takes 4 to 5 hours to get anywhere). Mia is a pleasant early-twenty-something redhead intent on breaking into the movies despite dozens of failed auditions. Seb is an intense jazz pianist who is constantly being fired from bars and restaurants for going off the mediocre script. They fall in love at a party by singing a song about not falling in love. Dating turns into a serious relationship yet their prospective careers seem to be pulling them apart. In the end, supporting someone often means letting them go.

(Nick’s Story: My first experience with the art of cinema was not a pleasant one. My parents took me to see Muppet Christmas Carol when I was six years old; Statler and Waldorf’s ghostly interpretation of Marley was so convincing that I ran screaming out of the theater. Despite this, I developed a passion for the medium and went to Chapman University in Southern California with dreams of winning Oscars and dating Scarlett Johansson. I directed several short films and even interned on Sunset Boulevard, yet my thesis was not picked up by a single festival. Not wanting to return to Oregon and work at Starbucks in my hometown, I took a teaching position at a local Catholic high school. It was through a Catholic Newman event that I met Violet, and immediately recognized her future importance based on her affinity for Mystery Science Theater 3000.)

La La Land is a treat for the eyes, ears, and soul. Although grounded in reality, it frequently breaks into fantasy to highlight emotional cues in a manner that is joyous rather than distracting. The two best examples of this occur first when Mia and Seb begin tap dancing down a mountain street at sunset and the second when they literally float through the stars like WALL-E and EVE. Oddly enough, the musical songs themselves are the weakest aspect – fun, but neither catchy nor memorable. Yet music is used throughout the film, especially Seb’s expert piano playing. 

(Violet’s Story: I don’t remember my first film in theaters, but I impressed my mom — a psychologist — and aunt — an experienced parent — by sitting quietly for the entirety of Free Willy at the age of two. I made my first film at the age of eight and by the time I was ten had begun a game plan for winning an Oscar. I identified quite a bit with Mia who spent her childhood writing and starring in plays for her family. I attended the film school at CSULB, but all my plans changed when I met Nick my freshman year and married him before my senior year. I was pregnant before graduation and went from being a producer of student films to a producer of babies. I could have done it. I could have gotten jobs as a production manager upon graduation. But where would the world be without our beautiful babies?)

La La Land opens on the 405 with the poor schleps stuck in traffic breaking out into a musical number. It’s what people probably think people do in LA traffic, but sadly they do not. I spent the whole number trying to figure out where and when it was shot (the producer in me). That being said, the music was not special, but the composure of the musical sequences was quite stunning. With all the old cars and vintage dress I had trouble figuring out which decade we were in. I realized the style was a mix of classic and modern Hollywood. Props and set dressing were elaborate and unrealistically over the top. All was tasteful and appropriate. I will admit that Mia had a giant picture of Ingrid Bergman on her bedroom wall, and I was quite jealous. 

Inevitably, Mia and Seb have a breakdown in their relationship, mostly through poor communication about expectations and desires. Each of them wants the best for the other, but they often interpret that as what the other person wants. Oftentimes, the most difficult choices aren’t between good and evil, but between equal goods which lead to different paths. Yet, even when we do the right thing, one must give up another right thing. Director Damien Chazelle illustrates these different possibilities in a wonderful way that leaves the audience pondering whether Mia and Seb made the right choice after all.

Our ultimate decision was for family and children, which means that we are now largely out of the film industry. We gave up our individual dreams to create a dream that could only be achieved together, and through tantrums, diaper changes, and quarrels, each and every day confirms we made the right choice. 

The future path is not set in stone, and God will help you along the way not matter what happens. Thus, it is not fruitful to try and plan out a perfect life, only to make the best decision on the choices facing you in the present. As Jesus reminded us, “do not worry about tomorrow. Today has enough troubles of its own.” Los Angeles may be the city of broken dreams, but it is also a place of second chances and mended hearts.

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About Nick Olszyk 190 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.