Musicals are not my favourite genre, but in the midst of the froth and romance of La La Land, there is this:
The struggling actress/protagonist Mia, auditioning for the role of a lifetime, gets real. In her song "The Fools Who Dream," she recalls the unconventional aunt who triggered her desire to act and remembers her story about jumping into the Seine in Paris. From the freezing water, her aunt saw the world differently, sings Mia: "She captured a feeling/Sky with no ceiling/The sunset inside a frame."
Her aunt told her, Mia continues:
"A bit of madness is key
To give us new colours to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that's why they need us
"So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays"
This nod to the importance of art and the "rebels" who create it is ironically the centrepiece of a quite conventional Hollywood movie. Two struggling young artists fall in love while pursuing their dreams, and after overcoming the full gamut of setbacks and humiliations, achieve success. But perhaps in a nod to the "fools" of the song's title, the lovers split up. The implication is that sacrificing the love of one's life for art -- especially this fabulously successful art -- is a reasonable compromise, if perhaps a bit sad.
I saw La La Land soon after Paterson, a low-key movie about a week in the life of a small-town bus driver (named Paterson) who also happens to write poetry. Paterson's world is full of ordinary sights and people and his love for his wife, all of which he incorporates into a constant stream of poems. He has no dreams of fame or fortune; indeed, his wife has trouble persuading him to even photocopy his battered notebook of poems. But when that notebook is destroyed, he is every bit as devastated as Mia when her humiliations become too much, and she (temporarily) abandons her dream of acting.
To me, both films speak to people's fundamental drive to create, whether their efforts end up on a big screen or in a battered notebook. But the space at the top is small; there's only room for a few Mias. Paterson is a shout-out to all the rest -- the knitters and painters, writers and music-makers -- whose only applause will ever come from friends and relatives. They too are illuminating the world.