La La Land: a peer review

This weekend I saw the critically acclaimed new Hollywood musical, La La Land. I can warmly recommend it to my generation of nomadic, globetrotting, aspiring, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed academic scientists. It’s touching.


SPOILER ALERT: My clumsy words will completely spoil your enjoyment whether you’re planning to watch it or have already done so.

My reason for watching La La Land was to reminisce about California, my erstwhile home, while seeing a critically acclaimed new Hollywood musical on the side. On that first point I felt somewhat let down: I wished for more street takes and car rides whether in or out of town — but nor have I been to the Griffith Observatory or to all that many pool parties myself. I would have enjoyed a more bleached, less vivid colour palette — I’m sure the camera had sunglasses on and perhaps this is how most people experience California, I can take that.

The first thing to hit close to home was the precarious existence, the unstructured life of our two bright and aspiring lead characters (see, see the subtle repetition!). Do you need telling that they are of opposite sexes? They’re broke (but forcibly hide this behind Californian optimism), work trivial jobs, and both dream of their big break. But there is no road map to get there. It’s all trial and error, where the number of trials is never greater than the number of errors. By highlighting this impression, I don’t refer to the life of a junior researcher, surprisingly, but to a certain vibe I felt in the air in the economically depressed California of 2010/2011. Could I possibly drop the adverbs from around California to signify an eternal validity of this feeling?

The conversations, or rather monologues about jazz were delightful. We in the audience felt like a fresher girl at university dazzled by the trains of thought of the arty second-year male student. My eyes are blind to acting skill so I’ll leave that judgement to the juries and Academies. (I had a suspicion that the sound didn’t always match with the tapping of the shoes in the dances but that’s all I can criticise.)

When the big break does hit,… It’s not even that, it’s only a compromise solution to earn some decent money! …then the lucky one has to move away for the job. Sounds familiar, eh?… Conflicted jobwise, with silly obligations, private life in tatters: all this because there is no income otherwise.

When the big break hits for the other — after much prodding by the first, remember — it’s game over.

I suggest we make a slight detour here. As expected in a cheesy Hollywood musical from two performing artist residents of Los Angeles, the two protagonists are the poster children for chasing your dream and living your passion. This life philosophy is not an inevitability, though. It can be argued that this is just what the baby-boomer parents have indelibly ingrained in their Generation Y (aka Millenial) children. The very baby-boomers who made great money by being in the right place at the right time, working practical but often uninspiring jobs. These are the midlife-crisis-stricken baby-boomers who wanted to give their children what they themselves hadn’t had: an enjoyable and fulfilling career. Thank you very much for that, folks, but, khm, where did you forget the job security?

It was game over at this point because they were living on different continents. When their paths cross again, to invoke Adele both in lyrics and mood,

I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now.
I heard that your dreams came true.
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.

We viewers were heartbroken by this turn of events. Why does it have to happen that distance tears people apart to sweep one or the other into a seemingly arbitrary (read: inferior) new relationship? We feel short-changed. For them, this is the codified history of their only life, of their marriage and children.

Had somebody secretly inserted the phrase `two-body problem’ into the script somewhere, my tears would’ve been streaming down my cheeks. The way La La Land crescendoed, I survived with my eyes wet.


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