Without doubt my favourite film of this year is the best-picture-Oscar-winner-for-two-minutes – La La Land, and I have spent many a conversation attempting to explain why. I’m very aware that while some loved it, many wondered what on earth the fuss was about, and the first time I saw this film I came out of the cinema wondering too. But, like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s a tale with many layers. It takes the genre of the old Hollywood musical and instead of trying to top any of the old ones (hence the criticism ‘It’s not exactly Singing in the Rain’) it uses the style in a very different way. Imagine if you heard the story of the prodigal son (in Luke 15) and had no idea it had any deeper meanings. You might well say, ‘Well it’s okay, but I’ve heard better tales about sons running away from home.’ There is not much detail at all, not much description and no real character development. But there is more than first meets the eye.
So with La La Land. It is la la littered with moments that reference old Hollywood – the singing and dancing, a trip to see Rebel Without a Cause, various locations and images. But these are used to make us consider the lure of stardom and the struggle for meaning and love. When Jazz pianist Sebastian first sings City of Stars, he sings about wondering if he’ll ever make it big in tinsel town. When he sings it again, it’s all about the way we all want to be loved. When Mia serves up coffee to a major star at the beginning we never see the star’s face, no one is interested in her humanity, it’s her celebrity status they all want. When Mia dances with Sebastian she very obviously removes her high heels – Ginger Rogers never did this, but real people don’t dance in high heels. The movie opens with a scene where myriads of wannabe stars sing and dance happily up and down the freeway, about it being another beautiful day – yet they are all stuck – in traffic jams and in coffee shop jobs. The very title is a clue to the questions the film poses – La La Land – we really shouldn’t take the lure of Hollywood too seriously. And then there is the double ending. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, one of these is modelled on the old ways of Hollywood. The other one not so much. I could go on – I have been known to. Only to say I love Mia’s humanity-embracing audition song – ‘Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make.’
Jesus’s tales were full of la la layers, and can be received in all kinds of ways. On the one hand the prodigal son tale is about a wayward brother, and the welcoming generosity and forgiveness of his father. On the other hand it’s about an older brother in a very dangerous position because, unlike his younger brother, he doesn’t realise he is lost. Peel another layer and you find a retelling of the story of Jacob and Esau, and a prodigal Jacob returning home not filthy rich and married with children, but filthy having wasted everything on prostitutes. Not having the credentials to prove himself, but the obvious need for a higher, generous grace. Peel again and we find a father who runs to protect his son from the rest of the community, hell-bent on stoning him to death, because there is a law about punishing a wayward teenager, to make an example of him. The father therefore runs to wrap himself around the boy, so that he himself will receive any punishing blows. A foreshadowing of the punishment Jesus took on the cross for very lost person. ‘He was declared dead,’ the father says at the end of the tale, ‘but not by me – I never wrote him off – he is alive!’ The father believes in resurrection. He sees beyond our mistakes, our failures, our catastrophes and slip-ups. He sees a new beginning, a thousand new beginnings. For us. In Jesus. The prodigal rescuer. ‘Here’s to the hearts that ache… here’s to the mess we make,’ sings Mia in La La Land; yes, and here’s to the one who understands all this, knows what we yearn for, and waits for us to turn so he can come running, with his bag of second chances.
La la layers, worth peeling back.