For every artist, be they an actor, writer, musician, painter, or creative person of any kind, the dreams they have of their success don't often match up to the realities of their situation. In Damien Chazelle's new musical film, La La Land, an ode to Los Angeles artists and dreamers, the harsh realities of pursuing a creative career hits the main characters like a ton of bricks. Though the film is an inspiring love letter to all forms of the performing arts, it didn't forget to include the underbelly of the industry — the struggles, heartbreaks, and disappointments of not exactly succeeding. As a former actor myself, I found that La La Land totally nailed exactly what it's like to be a struggling actor in the business.
Take this moment, early in La La Land, when Emma Stone's character, Mia, an aspiring actor, exits an audition only to walk through a hall full of seemingly never-ending 20-somethings with the same shock of red hair that she has, sporting the same white collared shirt. It's an image that's incredibly indicative of the acting world, with hoards of faces, especially female ones, all clamoring to be noticed, and all up for the same job in a world where only one job exists but hundreds of candidates march through the door every day. Mia's frustration with the industry and how she often feels like one in a million faces is so accurate in depicting the realities of pursuing an acting career. It's a tough road to take, and one in which putting in the effort often isn't enough to find you success.
Mia's romantic male counterpart, Sebastian, played by a broody Ryan Gosling, is a classically trained pianist who longs to open his own jazz club. His career trajectory, which includes playing Christmas songs in tiny restaurants for tips, is much different than Mia's, but still very much the same. Artists often have to resort to remedial jobs in order to pay the bills while chasing their dreams, so while Seb unhappily plays at restaurants, Mia makes lattes at a coffee shop. But throughout the struggle, for Mia, Seb, and those of us in the real world pursuing an art form, its the love of the thing that keeps us going, even through frustration, rejection, and despair. So they continue on.
But it does get hard, especially for Mia. In one particular audition, she brings herself to tears for the scene only to have the producer's attention taken away by her assistant. Every actor knows the feeling of pouring your heart into an audition or scene only to have the casting director take a phone call, eat a bite of sandwich, or simply tune out. I spent about six years in the acting world before turning to journalism, and that gut punch of putting your everything into a single moment only to have someone ignore you is one that still resonates with me to this day. While watching La La Land, I was pulled back tho those years of my life, at some points with great fondness, and at other points wishing Mia would just say, "To hell with this" already and quit.
But La La Land is, at its heart, a hopeful and positive film that (spoiler alert) wouldn't dare to let its main characters go without achieving their dreams. Mia and Sebastian both get what their hearts desire most — for him a successful jazz club, and for her an A-list acting career. Though when it comes to Mia's happy ending, I kind of wish it hadn't worked out so well for her in the end. I didn't want her to fail, but throughout the film, Mia cultivates a budding devotion to playwrighting that I thought for sure was going to overtake her interest in acting. That's what happened for me; an interest in writing and journalism turned into a side gig, which turned into a second career that has taken hold of my heart. I know so many former actors that have turned to other careers that Mia's move would be totally realistic, and not a sign of her own lack of motivation or desire to succeed.
Mia's movie star success comes about almost too perfectly, perpetuating the idea that you can achieve something great as long as you believe hard enough or dream big enough. In reality, though, there are thousands of out of work actors in the world who will tell you that their dreams are just as huge as an A-lister's, but that not everyone can win Oscars or even be a background extra in a movie. Would it have been lame if Seb got his dream but Mia didn't? Not if her dream changed, which, as said, happens for actors all the time. But even though La La Land might hold too strongly onto the concept that dreaming equals success, its own success lies in just how well it captures that struggle.