A musical can change your life … my fling with La La Land

My boss Natalie wants to ‘touch base’. It’s December 2016, less than a year into my new job. I am existing on black coffee and stress.

I work my way through Natalie’s box of single-ply tissues, which are holding together as well as I am. ‘I can’t do this any more,’ I sob.

Natalie’s eyes flicker to the piles of work on her desk before resuming a look of polite concern. ‘Maybe you just need a break,’ she says. ‘Aren’t you due for some annual leave?’

I hiccup into my tissue. ‘A week. Over Christmas.’

‘Well, then. Let’s see how you feel after that.’

So I fly to South Australia and spend Christmas with my family, and it helps—the sun, rest, food, and (of course) wine. But the biggest boost comes on Boxing Day. That’s when I see La La Land.

Let’s be clear: I was expecting to enjoy myself. I like musicals, even the cheesy ones with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and the world’s flimsiest plots. But even I wasn’t ready for what happened.

Basically, my heart exploded.

For two hours—with the exception of the embarrassing opening number—I achieved peak Ryan-Gosling-on-the-piano level escapism. From the colours to the choreography, my beauty-loving eyes were popping out of my head. La La Land had everything my poor, burned-out soul craved: music! dancing! chemistry! twirly skirts! And passion. So much passion. For someone who couldn’t remember why she was doing anything any more, watching two characters fight with every goddamn breath for dreams they’d been chasing their whole lives was—well, I couldn’t figure it out. Was I inspired? Envious? It was clear that further investigations were needed.

So I went back. Again, and again, and again. I saw La La Land about six times in the next two weeks. It was my coping mechanism. I’d returned from holiday to an empty sharehouse, with nothing to do but twist myself back into knots—but now I knew where to escape for 128 minutes plus previews.

As crutches go, it was pretty harmless. I appreciated why movies were so popular during the Depression. This was great—my big technicolour bandaid. I lived near a handful of cinemas, and unlike some other addictions, mine wasn’t expensive. Hell, I could do this all summer.

The movie felt different every time, and I kept trying to pinpoint how and why it affected me. For a story that leans heavily on the premise that ‘you can make it if you just believe!’, what truly resonated for me were the moments of pragmatism. Mia faces the fact that a lifelong love of acting doesn’t guarantee success; Sebastian gives up jazz to play in a pop band, feeling obliged on behalf of struggling musicians everywhere to take the gig.

I was both of them. Like Sebastian, I was in a job that I felt lucky to have, which should have been ideal for me, but even with hours of unpaid overtime I struggled with the workload. At the core of it, I was unhappy because I doubted if it was right for me in the first place. Like Mia, I wondered how to tell when something was a pipe dream or worth pursuing as a career.

The main thing that bothered me was: Why didn’t I have a dream? Everyone else had one. Mia and Sebastian spend the whole movie fighting for dreams—their own and each other’s—at all costs. The fact that every person has A Dream and the rest is mere tenacity is assumed from the start. I secretly hoped a side character would pop up and say, hey guys—what if I don’t know what I want?

Here I found perspective from the wonderful genius Tim Minchin. I rewatched his 2013 commencement speech about nine rules to live by—‘You don’t have to have a dream’ is number one. Minchin prefers to ‘advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals’, and by keeping this in mind I found the Hollywood earnestness a little easier to take.

I went back to work, weaning myself off my cinematic compulsion. I left the sharehouse and moved in with my boyfriend, who encouraged me to take better care of myself. I began researching my options—work, study, anything. One day a copywriting position caught my eye. The description enticed me; they sounded like my kind of people. Something made me reach out. I wrote to them, explaining my predicament and asking if they had any advice. About a week later I received an encouraging response from one of the employees, recommending a writing and editing course that she had found helpful.

It was just the answer I needed. Words and language were such a part of my life that I’d never considered them a career option. Perhaps I did have a dream—or at least a new short-term goal. I’d gone from Sebastian miserably playing the keyboard to Mia scoring her life-changing audition.

Twelve months, five weeks and three days since my Boxing Day enlightenment, I walked out of my job and went back to school. I now study professional writing and editing full time, and I’m devouring the content like chicken on a stick. My La La Land DVD sits quietly gathering dust, but I think it may be time to revisit my friends Mia and Sebastian, and say thanks.

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