What 'La La Land' Gets Right About Jazz

Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land.

La La Land has garnered seven Golden Globes, a score of 93/100 on Metacritic and a slew of thinkpieces, covering the film’s questionable gender politics, its whitewashed depiction of L.A. (and the city’s music), the way Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian [Seb, for short] presents jazz future and past -- or better, all three. All are cogent, necessary critiques of a film that attempts to reinvigorate a model -- the golden age Hollywood musical -- that initially faded in part because of fatigue for the heteronormative, superficial and often racist fantasies it portrayed. In other words, the exact problems that critics today find in La La Land. Director Damien Chazelle doesn’t challenge any of the norms of that style (save for placing it in a surreally retro version of the present day), and the issues inherent in MGM's glossy grandeur are even more glaring 60 years after its heyday.

The perverse thing, though, is that those same problematic musicals are actually an essential part of jazz history. Jazz and musicals have been tied since the very first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer (1927), which starred then-megastar Al Jolson as a Jewish immigrant trying to make it as a jazz singer (both in the film and outside of it, Jolson performed in blackface -- the film was loosely autobiographical). With that first “talkie” came the first movie-assisted jazz standard, the Irving Berlin-penned “Blue Skies.”

The hundreds of musicals that soon followed, from the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy (1930) to the groundbreaking Stormy Weather (1943) to basically the entire Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers oeuvre, created what’s now known as the Great American Songbook. In the era of those early musicals, jazz and pop were more or less one, which meant the songs they produced were simply hits that musicians across genres would be compelled to perform. It was only as musicians began to tinker with (and eventually subvert) those songs that the genres grew apart. It’s a part of American history that Chazelle explicitly wanted to spotlight: “[Jazz and musicals] had sort of a conjoined birth,” he told New York Magazine in December. “I just wanted to get at that a little bit.”

Take, for example, John Coltrane’s seminal 1961 album My Favorite Things. The title track is a reinvention of The Sound of Music classic, which at the time was just two years old (to compare, jazz musicians today are already putting their own spin on songs from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly). It's widely seen as a breakthrough moment for Coltrane, bringing him both new popularity (partially because of the familiar song choice) and critical renown, thanks to his almost-unrecognizable modal reinvention of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune and use of the soprano saxophone.

All four songs on the release are originally from a musical (or in the case of “Summertime,” an opera), and two had already been on the big screen: “Summertime” (Otto Preminger’s now-lost 1959 MGM version of Porgy and Bess) and “But Not For Me” (the 1943 MGM version of Girl Crazy). Listen to the Hollywood and Coltrane versions of each below.

This relationship means portraying Seb -- a self-described jazz purist who chafes at crowd-pleasing -- via the extra-cheese sound and aesthetic of musical theater creates a pleasant irony. Images of Coltrane throughout La La Land signal Seb’s hypocrisy: here's a man loathe to ever do the same thing twice, much less rehash musical history note for note or (shudder) be part of a Hollywood musical. Seb likely adores John Coltrane’s seminal version of “My Favorite Things” and abhors the original Sound of Music version, but here he is trying to be the next Gene Kelly. Whether he likes it or not, Seb’s a song-and-dance man, which helps deflate his self-importance and snobbishness from the jump (to both Mia, Emma Stone’s character, and the audience). The jazz/musical link also means that there’s strong historical grounding for Chazelle’s product -- a musical spotlighting jazz, in which The Music Itself is secondary to the central narrative. Some things never change: from Broadway, you’ve gotta head downtown (or way further uptown) to hear the real thing.

Equally deflated are Seb’s real-life counterparts -- who do exist, though they’re the exception, not the rule. Jazz has grappled with moldy figs (basically, anyone who prefers older styles of jazz to newer ones) almost since its inception, but like Seb, they have a hard time making a living (or being on the right side of history). His initial presentation, as a crotchety guy who doesn’t want to do anything except play along to Thelonious Monk riffs and yell at people for sitting on his Hoagy Carmichael stool, is certainly an unsavory caricature, but not an unrecognizable one to anyone who’s spent an hour or two at a local jazz haunt. The debates about what jazz is or isn’t, when it was good or when it wasn’t good, and how it should be continue today as they always have -- see a CNN headline from late 2016: Why Jazz Stopped Being Cool. Or the now-legendary 2011 essay by trumpeter Nicholas Payton from which it cribs heavily, On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore. Seb tells Mia, “Jazz is dying,” but headlines expressing that same hyperbolic sentiment have been appearing since the 1950s. It’s the kind of golden age-driven conversation that the genre’s focus on “what’s next” inspires -- not unlike the kind of tiffs currently happening in hip-hop (and just about every other genre).

In that same New York Magazine interview, Chazelle acknowledges how his own nostalgia shaped the film. “[Seb] has a stubborn relationship with jazz and the past, and it's a relationship that mirrors the movie's relationship with the past,” he said. “In some ways it's my own relationship with the past and with jazz, too. As much as I may want to update things and be contemporary, I can't pretend I don't have a deep reverence for the history of that music.” Ultimately, in La La Land, it’s not jazz, or even Seb insisting that one kind of jazz is the right kind of jazz that’s the problem -- it’s the fact when the movie starts, Seb is a delusional asshole (not even the power of jazz can save you from that). One of its victories is that he grows, though notably his evolution (at least as the audience sees it) is as a person, not as a musician.

Even without Seb’s supposedly “purist” tendencies, the majority of people who grew up playing jazz aren't able to swing it (pun intended) as fulltime bandleaders. Instead, they become session musicians, or join groups that may or may not be artistically in line with their own tastes. It's a reality of life as a professional musician that Chazelle brings to the forefront: There are plenty of people making a living in the industry whose names you'll probably never know, especially in L.A. where (because of Hollywood, among other things) most session musicians live. Take all the uncredited people in La La Land who, unlike Ryan Gosling, actually play jazz. Most pop liner notes are full of artists who, at the very least studied jazz in school, if they didn't pursue it as a career. [Even when you're not as stubborn -- and much more creative -- than Seb, it's still tough sledding.] Sure, Seb’s over-the-top agony at being compelled to play music akin to what Herbie Hancock was doing in the early ‘70s (for most jazz musicians, hardly a sacrifice) is eyeroll-inducing, but it's in line with how close-minded and intolerant his character is at that point in the movie. Even before he "signs on the dotted line" to join John Legend’s fictionalized John Legend band, he's still hustling in an '80s cover band and playing Christmas carols at a restaurant. It's very difficult to pursue anything creative compromise-free (as any writer can tell you), so if you’ve going to sell your soul anyway -- as Seb, thanks to Mia, realizes -- you may as well get paid. He sips the Kool-aid and in time, mellows out (a little). Money might not be a Monk solo but it’s nothing to sneeze at, whether it comes from playing funk-infused r&b or the movie's much-maligned samba-tapas restaurant (why not combine two good things, Seb?).

The one trait that makes Seb remotely sympathetic is his enthusiasm for the music, conveyed via what could either generously be called evangelizing, or critically called mansplaining. There are certainly hints of the latter, but as someone who's often been the Seb -- that is, trying to explain to a skeptic why jazz is so special to me -- I sympathize with his position. Mia isn't presented as an idiot: in their initial visit to Seb’s favorite old-jazz-person spot, The Lighthouse Cafe (a real L.A. venue), she raises perfectly valid questions about Kenny G and smooth jazz and background music, all important to a holistic understanding of jazz history. Seb's response is the most resonant part of the whole movie (except maybe “You never know what you got til it's gone,” or “Nothing gold can stay,” or some other sad romantic truism): You can't just hear jazz, you have to see it. The most compelling thing about the music is how dynamic and improvisatory it is, traits that especially for a newcomer translate best in a live setting. [Again, this is something I think I've told everyone I know: just come to a show or two, and see what you think.] That leads to his dream of opening a jazz club; specifically, reviving fictional L.A. institution the Van Beek. It's a surprisingly pragmatic aspiration for someone whose head is allegedly lost in the clouds: If you're going to preserve music that's not commercially viable, you need places to perform it (the best-known jazz musicians might break even on an album). The result, Seb’s, doesn’t exactly reinvent the stodgy jazz club wheel in the way his initial proposal, Chicken on a Stick (“Chicken and beer and jazz”) might have -- but it’s packed, and people appear to be having a good time.

By the end of the film, jazz as concept is presented as A Good Thing -- and even in light of said jazz's antiseptic execution, it's hard to argue with good publicity. For most people, jazz doesn't exist as much more than an idea and maybe a Miles Davis album anyway, so something that skews the genre’s Q score positive might at least inspire a little curiosity. Maybe Chazelle’s depiction of a jazz club will compel a few La La Land audience members to visit their local jam session, where they may just do something Seb couldn’t: get hooked on the diverse, youthful, and endlessly compelling world of jazz that exists right here in 2017.

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