Note: This article contains spoilers for Singin’ in the Rain and La La Land.
By a strange trick of timing, the end of 2016 saw a torch pass from one great musical film to another. The death of Debbie Reynolds, the last of the three stars of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, occurred just as the new film La La Land was taking off at the box office. (We do still have Rita Moreno, fortunately, but her part in Singin’ in the Rain was a small one.)
There have been plenty of other musical films between the two, of course — some of them even excellent. But La La Land takes its place in a cinematic tradition of which Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered the pinnacle: the old-fashioned singing-and-dancing musical comedy. In recent years we’ve had musical dramas (Les Misérables) and musical satires (Chicago). We’ve even had what you might call a musical smirk (Into the Woods). But La La Land, despite some bittersweet moments, marks a refreshing return to the idea of film musicals as an art form buoyant with joy, energy, and hope.
The two films have a second thing in common as well that helps explain the first: Both films are about making music and movies. Or to put it more broadly, they’re about the joy (and pain) of creative work. And the fact that they portray those things in such a positive light suggests a view of work and life that reflects the Christian view of calling.It’s good to be reminded that when we find the thing we were made to do and learn to do it well, that can indeed bring incredible joy and fulfillment.
Both films feature a couple whose romance spurs both partners to new creativity and greater success. In Singin’ in the Rain, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has already made it big in movies, but his career as a swashbuckling star is starting to stagnate. When he runs into Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a chorus girl on her way to stardom, he experiences not just a romantic awakening, but also, eventually, a creative one. He decides to scrap his current troubled project and make a musical in which she’ll play an essential role.
La La Land, by contrast, opens with both its protagonists struggling to make it in their chosen fields: Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who longs to own his own jazz club. As their relationship develops throughout the film, each has opportunities to hold the other accountable — to stay on the path no matter how hard it gets and to keep from selling out for easy money.
But in both cases, the dream of doing good work, of creating something beautiful and worthwhile, is a driving force. This helps create a much more balanced and interesting story than when a musical focuses solely on romance. It’s certainly more reflective of real life (as much as any film where people routinely burst into song can be) in giving the lovers an interest and purpose besides simply each other. After all, even the most devoted couple can’t simply stay focused on each other all the time! And it helps remind us that work can bring satisfaction, even joy.
It’s a fascinating fact that some of the greatest song-and-dance numbers in both movies are not about romance, but about the joy of work. The effervescent “Good Morning” number for Kelly, Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor is sparked when they come up with the idea of making a movie musical. Even Kelly’s immortal romp in the rain to the title song — which comes immediately afterward — arguably is inspired by both the joy of being in love and of being creatively rejuvenated. (If it were just about being in love, it would have made more sense to put it earlier in the film, after he and Kathy first realize they’ve fallen for each other.)
“Make ’Em Laugh,” O’Connor’s comic tour de force, is born out of the idea that “the show must go on” no matter what. And the “Broadway Ballet” drives home the point that, even when your heart gets broken, there’s still a reason to keep dancing — just because you “gotta dance.”
La La Land signals from the very beginning that writer-director Damien Chazelle and his songwriters — Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, and Justin Hurwitz — took these messages to heart. The very first lyrics of that film’s opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” tell us what to expect:
I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fe
We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew
Summer Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
The Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside its sheen
This is a film where “the ones who dream,” as another climactic song puts it, put that dream first — even before romance. The end of Mia and Sebastian’s story, disappointing as it may feel for many of us, was clearly spelled out in the beginning. Their relationship helped them to help each other; it ended in all of their career dreams coming true… but it ended. Unlike Singin’ in the Rain, where the central couple’s work brought them closer together, Mia and Sebastian’s successes took them to different, incompatible places in life.
I’ve seen a wide range of responses to this ending from Christian friends. Some — I include myself in this group — understand the ending but are still sad about it. Some think it fits the film perfectly. And then there are some who think it sends a dangerous, even un-Christian message: that career should come before romantic relationships. This doesn’t jibe well with modern evangelicalism’s “family first” credo.
Perhaps not — but I don’t think that makes La La Land anti-Christian. Quite the contrary. Family is one of God’s good gifts to us, but so is calling, and as such, the latter also deserves a high priority in our lives. Christians believe that when God creates us, He gives us talents, abilities, and drives to accomplish His purposes in the world. There are even some who argue that we are most like God when we create. The great mystery writer and theological essayist Dorothy L. Sayers went so far as to say that being made in the image of God means that we were made to create:
And then He made man “in his own image” — a creature in the image of a Creator. And there is indeed one thing which is quite distinctive about man: he makes things — not just one uniform set of necessary things, as a bee makes a honeycomb, but an interminable variety of different and not strictly necessary things, because he wants to. Even in this fallen and unsatisfactory life, man is still so near His Divine pattern that he continually makes things, as God makes things, for the fun of it. He is homo faber — man the craftsman… Man is a maker, who makes things because he wants to, because he cannot fulfill his true nature if he is prevented from making things for the love of the job. He is made in the image of the Maker, and he must himself create or become something less than a man.
Certainly we struggle to work out exactly what calling means: how much time and effort and money we should invest in pursuing our calling; to what extent we should follow our calling when it conflicts with other responsibilities; and so forth. Sometimes Christians struggle in particular with what an artistic calling entails (a discussion worth having in much more detail than I have room for here). And some Christians are cynical about the arts having anything to teach us at all, about calling or anything else. (For those, I recommend further reading of Sayers, especially her essays on work and her book The Mind of the Maker.)
These are hard questions. But every once in a while, as we deal with the hard stuff, it’s good to be reminded that when we find the thing we were made to do and learn to do it well, that can indeed bring incredible joy and fulfillment. Much of the greatness of both Singin’ in the Rain and La La Land lies in the fact that, through song and dance and story — which communicate the sheer love of creating something wonderful — they remind us of this eternal truth.