It seems that love and fame are difficult —or even impossible— to get along with. At least that’s what some movies, particularly musicals, have been trying to explain us all along. In their worlds, failed artists are meant to find love only by sacrificing their passions.
Nowadays, films’ stance on the artists’ love life is like this: you either are very lucky to find the love of your life and spend what’s left of your days to devote yourself to his or her hapiness, or you succeed on achieving your dreams by following the path you are always meant to walk. You have to choose, you can’t have both.
There’s no better way to illustrate this than with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, adapted to film by Richard LaGravenese, and Damien Chazelle’s Lala Land. Movies where their protagonists —all artists, by the way — have to face the tough decision of living a fameless life by staying together or embracing the success that is coming their way, but only by themselves.
In The Last Five Years’ movie adaptation, Cathy (Anna Kendrick) is a musical theater performer who is looking for an opportunity that can finally take her out of her waitress job. Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), on the other hand, is a writer looking for a publishing house who would want his book.
In Lala Land, Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who is looking for an opportunity that can finally take her out of her barista job. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz lover who wants to open his own club where he can play his own music.
They all have dreams to fullfill and places to be, but life — and love, at some extent— eventually gets in their way. Both couples fight to stay with each other along the way, but success, as we will learn, is a tricky thing to achieve and it does not wait for anyone or anything.
What’s really enlighting about contrasting these two movies is that we have the possibility to understand how two directors can represent different scenarios, and perspectives, of the same problem: the one with the couple that begin to have problems as soon as one of them becames famous, and the other couple that strengthens themselves by supporting each others dreams but fell off the wagon half way anyway.
Whilst Jamie succesfully manages to sell his first book to a famous publishing house right after he starts dating Cathy, she is not getting callbacks at all. In fact, she is just stuck between her job as a waitress and her summer gig in Ohio. She is happy for him but, as he becomes more and more famous, she starts to feel more like a failure. She doesn’t want to be the one that’s left behind.
There’s more than the eye could see with their relationship’s problems, Jamie’s success in no way feels like a threat to Cathy, but rather a constant reminder of her failure and her impossibility to follow and achieve her dreams. Cathy’s insecurities stems from society’s need to validate women by their hability to carry along with their household activities they’re supposed to do, instead of accomplishing their goals.
Their real problem, though, is their unwilingness to communicate with each other. They are really afraid to let the other down, because they really love each other. And when they actually communicate, their only purpose is to hurt themselves.
Cathy and Jamie, in fact, sing to express themselves. They use music to express their deepest and inner thoughts, and to reflect their expectations, like a daydreaming blowoff valve. She wants to be independent, succesful and in love, but, at the same time, he wants to be a good provider, a succesfull writer and a charming womanizer.
Mia and Sebastian’s relationship functions the other way around. Both of them are unsuccessful and very lonely when they actually start dating. What’s really great of their relationship is the support and motivation they have with each other. Neither one of them want to see the other one fail, on the contrary, they want them to be happy and fulfilled people.
It’s really their inhability to feel empathy for one another what pushes them to break up. While Mia is incapable to believe that Sebastian would do anything to follow his dream —even if this means to play on a mainstream band and touring— he is clueless about her weariness and constant disappointment that all her failed auditions make her feel.
In the end, they all are idealists, and it’s really interesting to understand that the one thing these four people share, apart from their desire to be famous, is the way they grapple their lives by putting all their expectations before reality. They want to be in an ideal relationship, one where empathy and communication are something to be expected from your loved one.
As we can see, all of the four characters are always constrained and forced by themselves to live between two worlds: first and foremost, on a fantasy land where they can have it all, and, later, on the real world, where love and fame can’t get along.
In fact, one of these musicals strenghts is their capability to toy with their narrative in order to show their portagonists’ life expectations by using different formats to evidence the stark constrasts between their titular couples real lives’ and their fantasy worlds.
In these movies, achievement and happiness are related with a fantasy/dream world were their expectations are fulfilled, whilst failure and disappointment are paired with the real world. Both LaGravenese and Chazelle even depict these particular moments with different colors and shades along their stories; whereas the blue and gray filters are in charge of showing failure, the yellow and white ones are destined to bathe the screen with color when an achievement is made.
There’s certainly something tragic behind this argument. This is a world where idealists are bound to always be normed and constrained by their expectations if they want to follow their path towards success. Even if this means to sacrifice love in their lives.