Would You Change Your Past? Say No With Cinema

More and more I’m finding that the films I choose to watch end up making me question whether I’ve made the right choices in life. Sounds dramatic I know, but stick with me.

Let’s get some personal info in. I’m about to turn 34. I’m very happily married and have my first child on the way. I have a day job that allows me flexibility to do things I need and pays me enough to afford the essentials plus a healthy dose of fun stuff during the month (though no doubt that will change once the aforementioned baby comes along). I have lots of creative outlets. This website is one of them. I also write books, the occasional screenplay and am currently working on my third musical. Sounds like a full life. Sounds great. And it is. But every so often a film comes along and makes me pine for a change. And I find that the older I get the more I wish for the change to have been made in my past, rather than doing something now to impact my future. I find that I want to be able to jump back and do something in my teens or early twenties just to know how it might have made my present day better or worse. Part of it is regret of things I did a certain way that I knew (even at the time) I should have done differently. But it’s also just curiosity. Kind of like It’s A Wonderful Life although not with me being dead.

In the last couple of years this has occurred a disturbingly large amount of times. And I’ve noticed that the main offenders are films which centre on music. For cinema, music has always been a way to tell stories about the dreams of the young. Whether the story itself is about music (Almost Famous, Empire Records, School of Rock) or that music plays an intrinsic role in the telling of the tale (anything by John Hughes).

There’s something so beguiling about the idea of being a musician, or of music being what defines you as a person, that makes it seem like the most magical of career options. So when a new film comes along and speaks to the mind of a person (see me, but also probably you) who has lived through having such dreams and come out the other side more or less unscathed, it demands personal reflection.

The main offenders I’m getting at in the last 2 years are Frank, La La Land and Sing Street. Those latter two coming out just months apart was like a one-two gut punch, and both deliver elation and nostalgia soaked mourning in equal measure.

With Frank it’s all about questioning how authentic you are as an artist. How much do/did you sell yourself out because the dream was greater than the art? La La Land is about the persistence. Did you fight with all you had because you knew you were a person worth believing in? And Sing Street is about reclaiming that wide-eyed innocence of the dream. Do you remember why you started in the first place? Can you get back that feeling of being unstoppable; that the world is just waiting for you to make your mark and that no amount of obstacles will get in the way?

Each of these films leave an aftermath of melancholy. It’s a short aftermath, but nonetheless poignant. It’s cinema as a personal therapist. For me it leads to a period of hours (or days) of examination. The fact that there are goals I did not attain through some combination of lack of authenticity, lack of persistence or lack of bull-headed naivety, need pouring over in the wake of the themes and messages of these stories. And ultimately this provides catharsis. The process either leads to a candid admission of faults, a confrontation about just what achievement looks like, a realisation of just how amazing life is, or a combination of the three.

The even more curious thing is that I find myself wanting more of the same. Just as a person can become hooked on therapy, I am now actively seeking more films that fit this mould. Because even though looking back and picking apart the negatives can be painful, the ultimate outcome is the eventual and inevitable conclusion that everyone has done something amazing. Whether it’s me, you, or all the people around you. The key is to recognise that no matter how busy life becomes, and how different things may be in your adult life as a contrast to how you imagined them, they are still full of much that rocks and much that rolls.

So no, I don’t want to be a different person. As much as I sometimes punish myself for things I could or should have done I don’t want my life now to be any different. It would be fun to have a version of Scrooge’s three ghosts to show me lives that could have been, but I wouldn’t opt to take them.

What are the films for then?

They are to give an outlet for pent up feelings of doubt. Even in the happiest of times there is too much doubt. You doubt yourself, you doubt others, you doubt choices you make from things as big as buying a house to tiny things like whether or not to order fries with your burger (you always should). So to see a story writ large that reveals millions of others are the same as you, that’s just gravy.

It would be great to know what kind of films do this to you. For me it’s music but for you it could be sporting films, sci-fi films, biopics. Let us know in the comments below and we can create the ultimate list of movies made to make you love life.

Until then, keep watching, keep listening and keep loving the good things you have.

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.