Is La La Land’s “The Fools Who Dream” about mental illness?

I saw La La Land yesterday, and my favorite moment, by far, was Emma Stone’s final audition scene, and the song The Fools Who Dream. I may have cried, and I’ve listened to it a million times since then.

But I realized something last night, on listen one million and one, and now I can’t un-hear it. Is The Fools Who Dream about a suicide attempt?

I was so convinced that it was obvious, and I’d been a fool to miss it, that I googled it. And nothing came up. No one seems to have written about this. But for all that The Fools Who Dream is moving and inspirational, it’s ultimately a song about a woman jumping into a river.

She smiled, leapt without looking, and tumbled into the Seine.

Maybe, as someone who lives in a European city on a river, I have a very different perspective on this than people living in LA. By far the most common thing that happens when people jump or fall into York’s river is that they die, even if they just intended to swim across for fun. There’s a memorial to someone who did just that not far from where I’m sitting and writing this now. You can’t read those local headlines multiple times a year and read all the “be careful around the river” warnings, and not struggle to find jumping barefoot into a river romantic.

But this revelation has really changed the song for me. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a different way. It becomes a story about a creative but troubled woman, who had a spark and big dreams, but also struggled with those things, and tried to kill herself in a “romantic” way.

Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.

Here’s to the hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make.

There’s nothing romantic about mental illness, and there are big problems with the tradition of tying mental illness with creativity. But that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of creative people struggle with mental illness (as do, in fact, all sorts of people in all sorts of careers). And with attempted suicide in mind, the song becomes less about “here’s to the people who keep going and keep creating, even though it seems hopeless,” and more about “here’s to the people who struggle and suffer, and yet create something real and beautiful despite that.”

She captured a feeling, sky with no ceiling, a sunset inside a frame.

She lived in her liquor, and died with a flicker.

I’ll always remember the flame.

The aunt paints it all as something story-worthy and exciting, but she’s sad, and she eventually dies “with a flicker”, and honestly, this whole part just makes me think that the aunt did succeed in committing suicide another time. After all, “she said she’d do it again.”

She told me a bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why need us.

I’d like to read this not as a line saying “mental illness is key to creativity”, but the idea that it does provide someone with a unique perspective, and that that perspective creates stories that need telling too. It can create beauty in stories too. It’s validation, a feeling of great sadness and wistfulness but also of hope. Of taking what you have, and making it into something more, something of beauty.

Smiling through it, she said she’d do it again.

Honestly… I don’t know what to make of this line if the song is about suicide and not adventure. Obviously, saying that she’d do it again isn’t good or romantic if “it” is trying to kill herself. If we take the line as metaphorical, the sense that she leapt and suffered and survived, and the beauty she took from it was worth it, that’s one thing. But the line is innately heart-achingly sad to me, like the aunt is saying, “This is who I am. I don’t regret that experience, and I survived, but I know I could find myself there once more.”

Or is it that it’s about going through mental illness, that level of pain, again? Obviously, no one wants to suffer, but if it’s a choice between suffering and getting through it and ending up somewhere better, or not suffering but not experiencing anything at all, she’ll pick the first option every time. It’s hard, but she’s take what good she can from it.

I think I like that third option best. There’s still a lot of sadness there, but also acceptance and hope.

But I don’t know. I’m still not sure how to parse this song, which is why I’m writing about it here and not on Feminist Fiction. What do you all think? Am I overthinking the song, or is this super obvious and that‘s why no one seems to have written about it?

Maybe if I listen to it another million times, I’ll finally figure it out.

4 Comments

  1. Melissa Scott January 24, 2017

    Hello! I must agree with you. sitting in the theater and watching this scene it seemed so obvious, especially at the end. I am glad someone else agrees.

    Reply
  2. Marisol Rippy January 31, 2017

    yes! I think so too. I just watched the movie yesterday and mentioned the scene to my sister and how i thought it was about her aunt’s suicide. She had seen the movie before and never thought about it so I made her read the lyrics again. This was the only post I’ve seen making mention of it.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Berry Jones February 10, 2017

    I think this analysis is correct but I would maybe problematize it a bit. I had this experience during a wind storm in Washington state where I went out and stood in the sound. It was rediculously dangerous and I admit it had sort of this thanos/death drive component to it — but I wasn’t trying to kill myself. It’s more like I was trying to let go and give in to a bigger force for a moment. That’s how I interpreted this, that the aunt was shedding her ego not with the goal of dying but with the goal of being free of herself for a moment.

    Reply
  4. Paul George February 20, 2017

    Thank you for typing this out , I too have heard this song a little too many times . The imagery it creates with the phrase “she jumped into the river once – barefoot” – it’s a very dark scene , a pair of abandoned flats abandoned in the middle of a bridge spanning the river .

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *