Damien Chazelle’s La La Land can be seen as being comprised of three different films: a romance, a musical, and a film about art. None of these aspects of La La Land are particularly good; not because Chazelle stretches the film thin between themes or sub-plots, but rather, because he lacks nuance as both a director and a screenwriter. For Chazelle, ideas—such as the struggle of the artist—aren’t explored and wrestled with so much as they’re used as contrived emotional fodder. Admittedly, Chazelle excels at this type of game. At two different points in the film, he combines the basics of the story—boy meets girl—with montage in order to create a rush of emotions: first, magical and romantic, and later towards the end, bittersweet and tragic.
The ultimate effect created might be one called the “magic of cinema,” but to be taken in under such “magic” would be to willingly ignore the man behind the curtain. I am not criticizing the nature of films that might be escapist through their so called magic. I am criticizing La La Land for seeming to be one of these magical films which pull audiences into their fantastical worlds. In reality, however, with La La Land Chazelle hasn’t created a fantastic world but an empty and more importantly, insular one.
The film opens on a highway where traffic has jammed. As if on wings, Chazelle effortlessly glides the camera between cars and lanes. He stops on a woman who begins the first song of the film, Another Day of Sun, a jovial and uplifting tune. Dancers stream out of their cars and Chazelle follows them, transforming the highway into a grand stage.
Despite the grandiosity of this musical opener, Chazelle’s composition never keeps up with his choreography. Chazelle knows how to paint the bigger picture but leaves wanting for smaller details. The flaw here becomes one present throughout the rest of the film. Not just in the musical numbers but also characters and their beliefs. Here, Chazelle seems intent on capturing images as dully as possible. The dancers are acrobatic and flowing; Chazelle’s camera moves slowly and while he indeed glides over the cars, camera movement remains restricted. The opening number appears to be not a moment of exhilaration but one of rigor, perhaps more appropriate for a commercial advertising a summer resort.
Once the song ends, the two protagonists are introduced. Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), two other victims of the traffic jam who spat briefly before parting ways. Far from their last encounter, Mia runs into Sebastian two more times and over their mutual interests, the two strike up a friendship and eventually a romance.
Mia works as a barista on a Hollywood lot and longs to be an actress. After being repeatedly rejected in auditions, she decides to put on a one-woman show, inspired by her aunt who introduced her to the world of cinema as a child. Sebastian, on the other hand, works as a jazz pianist, and he dreams of one day opening his own jazz club for a very specific purpose: to revive jazz.
And he receives the chance to do so when he runs into his old friend, Keith (John Legend). In need of a drummer for his jazz band, The Messengers, Keith invites Sebastian to fill the role. For Sebastian, joining The Messengers comes with an ideological caveat. Keith’s band doesn’t play free-jazz; they play a mixture jazz infused with pop, rock, and electronic music, because it attracts crowds—young people—and in essence, pays the bill. With reluctance, Sebastian joins in order to raise money for his club.
During one of their first-dates, Sebastian explains to Mia how he believes jazz will die soon. His tirade comes with a bevy of implications, none of which the film or Chazelle are interested in exploring. These implications aren’t minor ideas but major ones that would have otherwise changed the very nature of La La Land. But their inclusion would ruin the savior fantasy of Sebastian and by extension Chazelle.
The most obvious implication arises from Sebastian’s racial identity as a white-man, attempting to “save” jazz, a form of music—as Sebastian references himself—which originated from Black culture.
The resulting consequence of Sebastian’s ideals on jazz is a fetishization of jazz music and black people. When he takes Mia to the jazz club, he exclaims with fervor on the stylistic beauty of the black jazz musicians playing. Worth noting are the members of the audience or rather how Chazelle chooses to frame the scene; only Mia and Sebastian are shown to be present. Whether Chazelle realized it or not, he has re-created, for worse, the atmosphere of the Cotton Club.
This on its own isn’t necessarily an issue of race, but it becomes compounded by the lack of a significant black voice in the film to give their own thoughts on the matter of jazz “dying,” and also by how disconnected La La Land and our own reality are.
To start with, jazz has not died. Portico Quartet, Hiromi, BADBADNOTGOOD, Jeff Parker, Kamasi Washington and most famously, Flying Lotus are just some modern jazz musicians who have produced works keeping the genre alive. These musicians aren’t playing free-jazz, but they’re also not what Chazelle believes modern jazz to be. At one point in the film, Mia attends a concert by The Messengers and Chazelle presents their music as a complete farce.
An ecstatic Mia works her way into the crowd. A single light shines down on Sebastian, who begins to play the piano. Another light shines down, revealing Keith, who begins to sing. Then, to Mia’s bewilderment, the entire stage becomes alight in shining rays, revealing the rest of the band and a stylistic change in music; Sebastian switches to an electronic piano, there are back-up singers, and, back-up dancers, and finally, a whole host of multi-instrumentals that connote pop/rock more than they do Jazz.
At once it becomes clear that The Messengers are not Sebastian’s ideal of jazz, best exemplified by the shrug he gives to Mia before the show truly begins and later his reluctance in answering her question as to whether or not he likes the music he plays for the band. With the concert scene, Chazelle has created a straw-man for his romantic notions on jazz music. Once again, to acknowledge the realities of our own world would be to ruin the supposed fantasy of the film, and Chazelle seems to realize this.
In a self-reflexive act of pre-emptive defense towards his critics, Chazelle hides a line in the guise of advice to Mia from Sebastian. Mia puts on a demo of her show for Sebastian—to which we are not privy to, ever—and she worries that it might be too nostalgic. Inspired by old Hollywood musicals, Sebastian’s love of old jazz and Mia’s love for classic films—the two go on a date to watch Rebel Without a Cause—La La Land, of course, drenches nostalgia. When Mia tells Sebastian whether or not people will like her show due to the nostalgia, he tells her, “fuck ‘em.”
There are key ideological differences between Mia’s play and La La Land itself, however, that disallow the “fuck ‘em” defense in the case of Chazelle’s film. Most notably, as stated earlier, La La Land’s insular world. La La Land may be a tragedy, but it is a heroic tragedy vested in creating and maintaining Sebastian’s cool fortitude as a white-male, not all too differently from Drive, another film in which Gosling stars in a similar role of the hero, albeit, more violent than musical. The key flaw lies in the lengths that Chazelle—as a screenwriter—goes into preserving this ideal of Sebastian: compared to Sebastian, Mia remains an undeveloped character, although it should be noted that Stone gives the better performance of the two and a good one at that; Chazelle relegates Keith to the role of Sebastian’s foil and this case, that means having few speaking lines and only serving to behave more as a nuisance towards Sebastian rather than an artistic rival with a defined set of beliefs. Despite taking place in the modern world, and the proliferation of musicians all over the internet through websites, such as Sound Cloud, Band Camp, Spotify, YouTube, and more, Sebastian has never listened to modern jazz and neither perhaps the classics he so claims to love: Miles Davis, one of the all-time greats who Sebastian adores, has an album which combines jazz with funk, electronic and other genres of music, titled, On the Corner; not to mention a bevy of other old-school jazz musicians who worked within multiple genres, such as Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti, or even Frank Zappa.
In short, the world of La La Land is a very delicate one whose foundation is built on willful ignorance. To explore Mia as an artist, to give Keith a dissenting voice centered on his beliefs of jazz and the role race plays in jazz music, and to allow the influences of our modern world to breach the nostalgia of La La Land, would ultimately be to ruin the fantasy of both the film and Sebastian’s heroics.