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The Madness of Damien Chazelle: How the Director of La La Land can Save America


“You’re only given a little spark of madness; you mustn’t waste it.” — Robin Williams

Our country’s reaction to the deaths of so many icons in 2016 revealed not admiration for their achievements, but a pulsating cynicism. While they were alive, we found glee in any flaw a tabloid could uncover, and only in their deaths did we highlight their achievements. We saw death in their life, and life in their death. Like madness, cynicism is a matter of perspective.

During the cacophony of cynicism came one tiny spark of hope and optimism: La La Land, directed and written by Damien Chazelle. One’s reaction to this film can be as revealing as one’s reaction to the life and achievement of a celebrity. (If you have not seen La La or Whiplash go watch them now and follow our campaign at #lalaforbestpic on any social media platform)

Honestly, I used to find it odd the way many people idolize certain celebrities. Nonetheless, during the constant barrage of celebrity death in 2016 was one that affected me personally: Muhammad Ali. When I was 16 years old, I saw a clip of Ali fighting and I heard him gloating. I was enamored. I read every biography. I watched every fight. I took up boxing. Though I was no Ali, he inspired me to aspire. I saw the heights to which anyone could climb; he went from an unknown boy whose bike was stolen, to the boxer who “floats like a butterfly; stings like a bee!” And as a boy who loved words, I could not help but be infatuated with such a warrior poet.

In La La , the protagonist Mia, played by Emma Stone, sings a song to “The Fools Who Dream.” Though Mia is singing about her aunt, a failed actress, there is a line in the song which captures a poignant reality of the lives of many of these stars whose lights went out:

"She lived in her liquor and died with a flicker, but I'll always remember the flame."

I felt that this homage to the great ones, to the ones who stung like bees, was the best tribute to a man who boxed for far too long and destroyed his brains; to the cocaine addicts who spread joy; to the alcoholics who had once lifted the hearts of millions. They may have lived in their liquor, or the equivalent, but I’ll always remember the flame.

The growing cynicism in our culture reverses Mia’s homage. We forget the flame, and remember the flicker and the liquor. Worse, this cynicism darkens the hearts of so many young people right on the verge of the most important moment of their lives: tomorrow.

In the art of 31 year old Damien Chazelle, we see a flicker of optimism. We see a world where dreams can come true, for those willing to break their bones against the grindstone of training; and for those who have the courage to stand tall before the unflinching passion of an idealist.

In Chazelle’s work, we learn of the necessity of any dreamer to prove himself to an unwavering idealist. In Whiplash, the role of the idealist falls to a brutal dictator-like jazz teacher, Fletcher (J.K Simmons.) He yells, curses, slaps, threatens and pushes the character, Andrew (Miles Teller) to become great. Mia in La La has Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a man with such blind idealism that he wants to open a bar that serves beer and fried chicken in a world that is gluten free.