What do we believe in, in our largely post-religious culture? The pursuit of individual happiness, obviously. A vague humanism, thankfully. But something more dramatic is needed too. Something for Hollywood to chew on.
La La Land reminds us what it is – the myth of the risk of art. The myth of creativity being a vocation that involves sacrifice. In this case, spoiler alert, it is romantic love that must be sacrificed. It is because it serves this myth that La La Land is being revered. (It is a rather feeble and self-conscious film, always looking at itself in the mirror to see if it looks authentic and fresh.)
Another high-hyped recent film of this ilk was Whiplash, about a young music student. There’s one every year or so. Inside Llewyn Davis, about a failing folk singer, was a sombre take on the theme. Before that it was Black Swan about a young dancer. In my youth it was Dead Poets Society.
Of course the myth is not without foundation: creative ambition can be costly. It is a myth in the sense that there is a will to believe it, to find significance in it, to import quasi-religious sentiment. The emotional core of La La Land is not the love story – the characters are too cool, too invulnerable for love – but a scene in which the girl states her faith in the artistic vocation. Personally, I’d rather hear about faith in another setting, and see uplifting love stories in the cinema.