Damien Chazelle: From Whiplash to La La Land
To date, Damien Chazelle has now created two outstanding films that revolve around jazz but La La Land and Whiplash are about as different as two films could be. It’s hard to imagine that the films share a common universe, much less a common audience or creator. In my opinion, however, Chazelle still has a ways to go before he really gets jazz well enough to faithfully translate it into a film. Jazz, as Sebastian (the main character in La La Land) would tell us, is about context. To understand jazz you need to understand where it comes from.
While Chazelle’s movies demonstrate that he has a cursory understanding of where jazz comes from (in the scripting of La La Land especially) it feels as if there’s still a gap between him understanding where jazz is from and understanding where it is now, or where it’s going. It’s clearly possible to understand the history of a certain movement and yet still be somehow disconnected from it’s current iteration.
It’s apparent to the casual viewer that Chazelle thinks the world of top-tier musical academies is a cutthroat environment, and that the world of top-tier jazz ensembles is similar. If we grant that Chazelle has a point about music schools—that they’re competitive, potentially unhealthy environments for students, and emphasize self-sacrifice for artistic performance—we might have similar critiques of post-secondary education in general. The more controversial statement Chazelle seems to be making in Whiplash is about jazz performance.
What I hope viewers had a hard time accepting about jazz in Whiplash and La La Land is it’s rigidity. Sebastian in La La Land uses the same conversation to suggest that jazz is about improvisation and each performer taking the song where they want to go while at the same time suggesting that “pure” jazz is dying. Whiplash is filled with scenes of Fletcher (the band director) yelling at students, forcing them to play at his tempo. Viewers of Whiplash could be forgiven for believing that Chazelle wasn’t trying to make any big statements about jazz and it’s rigidity or purity because he put some of the most moving (albeit not the most jarring) soliloquies in Fletcher’s mouth. It’s difficult to take anything that the abusive, manipulative band director says seriously. So when Fletcher tells us (or implies) that great jazz is following the band leader with absolute precision, we have reason to doubt him.
I think it’s important too that in Whiplash the audience is shown that there are alternative ways to approach jazz, that there are healthier ways to live life than to dive headlong into a self-destructive pursuit for perfection. The characters espousing the most about jazz are the ones that the audience is given the most reason to doubt.
While Whiplash really sets the audience up to come to their own conclusions about jazz, it’s La La Land that makes it seem like Chazelle needs a better grip on jazz than he currently has. In Whiplash it was the demonstrably unstable characters that had the most hard-line approach to jazz, but that’s not the case in La La Land. Sebastian in La La Land is the one to tell the audience that there’s something “pure” about jazz that’s slowly dying. It’s not the fringe characters, it’s not the one’s the audience is skeptical of that suggest jazz is dying. In La La Land the audience is given good reason not to trust the character trying to show how jazz evolves. The actual plot wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that the story is Sebastian’s story first and foremost. The way that Whiplash settled into a dilemma for the audience, La La Land hunkers down behind an overpowering message. Whiplash asks the audience if greatness in art is worth the self-sacrifice and makes it clear that this is a personal choice, one that your family, your girlfriend, and your teachers can’t make for you. La La Land, because it’s so clearly Sebastian’s story, seems to have a much different message. It seems to suggest that jazz is one thing and one thing only, and that variation isn’t a rebirth, it’s a dilution of its essence.
The truth is, nearly the whole of modern music owes its origins to jazz in one way or another, just like how every iteration of pop music owes its style (and sometimes substance) to the music that preceded it. Without jazz, there would be no blues. No blues, no Chicago blues. No Chicago blues, no rock and roll (and so forth). What I think Chazelle seems to be missing about jazz is that since it was just a New Orleans funeral tradition, people have been saying it’s “dying” but over the last centuries it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s easy to say that jazz is dying and it needs protection, but the truth is, it’s alive and well. Chazelle just needs to look a bit harder to find it.