Although La La Land heads into the Oscar race on a wave of nominations (14, including Best Picture), it also faces a fomenting backlash. While most moviegoers have embraced this original musical, in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play romancing artistic types in modern-day Hollywood, some have grumbled that it’s too derivative, too pleased with itself, too inconsequential. Sure it looks good, the argument goes, but what does it mean?
When it comes to awards, we tend to prefer movies that feel important—and we tend to associate importance with a film’s story or theme. Yet La La Land, as I argued when I placed it on my top-ten list, brilliantly brings to the forefront cinematic elements that often get less attention: music, dancing, singing, costuming, camera movement, staging, color. Who is to say that the inspirational narrative of something like The King’s Speech—2011’s Best Picture winner about King George VI’s struggle with a speech impediment—has more intrinsic value than La La Land’s aesthetic elegance, of which the most inspirational element may be the way Stone swings her canary-yellow dress?
There is, interestingly, a theological parallel to this question, one that involves the Christian notions of special and general revelation. Most Christians affirm that God reveals himself both through Scripture (special revelation) and through the general revelation of creation itself. Just as some moviegoers can place less value on a film’s formal elements in favor of its narrative or theme, so some Christians can treat general revelation as a mere afterthought. (Never mind that Paul argues vehemently in favor of creation’s power to reveal “God’s invisible qualities.”)
Movie musicals are one of the best genres for celebrating the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us.
Writing in The Banner, Donald Oppewal pushes back against such an imbalanced approach to revelation: “Those who readily dismiss the validity of general revelation seem to argue that only special revelation is normative, a particular application of the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. What this view seems not to consider is that the trustworthiness of both revelations is rooted in God as the writer of both books.”
God is not the writer of La La Land (that would be Damien Chazelle, who is also the film’s director). But Chazelle and his collaborators are, like all of us, made in God’s image—and they bear that image in numerous ways, including in their glorious creativity. As I wrote earlier on TC, movie musicals are one of the best genres for celebrating the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us, his created beings. This image-reflecting creativity is why La La Land does, in fact, mean something. Not necessarily for what it says, but for what it displays.
Although God’s glory is filtered through fallible human beings (I’ll admit the movie isn’t perfect), we can see it in La La Land much like we see it in nature. Consider Psalm 19:1-2, another scriptural case for general revelation:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
What exactly does a sunset mean? I couldn’t really say. Yet I’d watch its remarkable display each night if I could, knowing that I was encountering evidence of God in the melding colors and awesome rays. Similarly, I’ve frequently revisited “Another Day of Sun”—La La Land’s bravura opening number, which transforms a congested, concrete L.A. freeway into an elaborately choreographed dance party. With each viewing, something joyous is revealed—about God, his world, and the boundless creative energy with which he blesses us all. And that, I can say, means a lot.