La La Land: A secret conservative movie?
There is a certain irony that the movie La La Land, at its core, it is a movie based on conservative values such as the preservation and timelessness of tradition, obligation, and self-sacrifice. They may seem somewhat clichéd to some, but in the context of the hyper-liberalism of Hollywood, aka "La La Land," these stand out as the primary themes in a movie that could also be described as that of two aspiring artists whose ultimate destiny was determined by the competing tension between love and ambition.
It was Edmund Burke, the original conservative, who first promoted the idea that tradition and obligation are most important for a well functioning society. In the book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left, Yuval Levin highlights the contrast between his philosophy and that of one of the original liberals, Thomas Paine, who thought it was choice and individualism that provided the highest societal good. Burke's philosophy acknowledges restraint and limitations as necessary preconditions for freedom, whereas Paine's thought carried out to its logical conclusion leads to selfishness and narcissism, and eventually to nihilism. These are not exactly the kind of characteristics that lead to an ideal society, because they open the door to all kinds of problematic excesses we see in today's hyper-permissive society. Most notably, there is addiction – drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography – just to name a few.
Gosling's character, Sebastian, is distraught that jazz is a dying art form, and he wants to make it his mission to help save it. As an aspiring jazz pianist, he struggles to make ends meet, while Emma Stone's character, Mia, keeps getting rejected in trying to make it in Hollywood as a successful actress. Sebastian feels obligated to keep alive a tradition that, despite being drowned out by more modern forms of music, he believes is beautiful and timeless.
On another level, the movie itself could be considered a conservative "throwback" to the musicals of the past, an acknowledgment of something that is old, beautiful, and timeless – and possibly an attempt to revive a genre in movies that is all but dead, just as happened with animated movies.
The movie takes a major turning point when Sebastian returns home and surprises Mia one night after being on the road with a jazz band (featuring John Legend). He joined the band because it paid well, but it caused him to set aside his dream of starting his own jazz club. He wanted Mia to join him for a two-week gig the band had in Boise, but she feels she can't take the time out of the work she's putting in to writing a play despite his plea that she could still use a laptop no matter her location. Mia gets upset with Sebastian because she feels as though he should be pursuing his dream of starting a night club. But Sebastian believes he's doing the right thing, since he thought Mia wanted him to have a regular job with a regular paycheck in order to pay the bills. Here his obligation overrules his dream. There appears to be a big misunderstanding between the two that is the beginning of the end of their relationship.
Every day, people are told to follow their dreams by the purveyors of self-actualization, but there is always the danger that they won't be realized. The conservative principle of self-sacrifice that comes with obligation is the real way to authentic charity for both family and others, one Sebastian is following in the movie. And with grace, many people will still realize their dreams while at the same time meeting their obligations.
It's just when dreams are put ahead of obligations that they become an exercise in selfishness, usually with a healthy dose of narcissism. Sebastian's belief that sacrifice is more important than his dream in the end leads to the grace that allows both him and Mia to fulfill their artistic dreams.
La La Land is another example of how Edmund Burke was the ultimate winner in his "great debate" with Thomas Paine. And perhaps liberal "La La Land" is beginning to find value in making movies based on conservative values.