in movies, music

On ‘La La Land’ and Its Treatment of Jazz

I really enjoyed La La Land when I first saw it, but as time has gone on, its shine started to wear off for me. The first thing that bothered me was how it handled its overarching message about succeeding in Hollywood (more thoughts here in our podcast review). The second was how the film handled jazz.

In La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, wants to open his own jazz club. He believes jazz in its pure form still has the potential in our society to thrive, unperverted by tapas, salsa, or modern day market demands (nevermind the sales figures).

About halfway through the film, John Legend’s character, Keith, is introduced trying to recruit Seb for his band. Keith has evolved his jazz style to be more palatable to the masses, but in a way that Seb finds objectionable.

When the two play a concert for the first time, the camera cuts multiple times to Emma Stone’s Mia watching Sebastian, her eyes full of disappointment and bemusement. “How could Seb do this?” she seems to be wondering. How could he pervert his “art” like this?

Which is a bit odd if you think about it. It feels like the audience is set up to look down on Keith’s music, and to admire Seb’s tenaciousness. But what actually is wrong with Keith’s stuff anyway? Isn’t changing with the times what all great musicians have done? And why is Ryan Gosling’s character trying to defend the musical form of jazz against John Legend’s character?

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this dynamic. Over at MTV News, Ira Madison III has penned a scathing reaction to the film’s “white savior” narrative on jazz:

The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.

Seve Chambers over at Vulture has more on what La La Land gets wrong about jazz to begin with:

Today’s artists have realized that letting go of these conservative notions is best way to “save jazz.” La La Land presents these arguments in the form of Keith, the fusion artist played by John Legend in the film. Though his words sound reasonable — he asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist — Chazelle stacks the deck against him: Keith turns out to use a laughably ’80s sound that’s meant to seem completely disconnected from his jazz roots. For extra measure, he also uses a cheesy stage show complete with dancers — a luxury no modern jazz artist could afford, or would even consider. It’s almost as if, well, the movie wants us to hate new jazz.

This is a vision of fusion jazz that sounds nothing like the contemporary jazz scene. Take Esperanza Spalding, a gifted musician who has brought renewed attention to the genre. One night she might go onstage with a band that mixes rock, R&B. and other influences; on another she might play with veterans Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington in an all-woman trio. The same holds true for Robert Glasper, whose experimental troupe might do a jazz cover of a Nirvana song or pay homage to the late hip-hop producer J Dilla, but who also spends time in a more traditional group, the Robert Glasper Trio. Both Spalding and Glasper are highly regarded within jazz circles, drawing sizable crowds and winning Grammys in the process. Other acts like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Otis Brown III refuse to be fixed on the idea of purity; they’d rather push jazz to evolve. Despite what La La Land might have you think, the genre has already reckoned with and resolved the debate over the sanctity of jazz.

When it comes to La La Land’s vision of jazz, look closer at the real thing before you take it as gospel.

  • Dylan Schwan

    I still find myself surprised to hear the white savior argument about La La Land because I feel it ignores a large portion of the Sebastian character. Seb’s outlook on art and jazz is quite frequently delusional. I know Devindra has gone into this a little bit, but while Chezelle may sympathize with his characters, I think he’s also willing to show their humility.

    In that scene where Mia sees Seb play as part of Keith’s band, I can understand why people see that as her disappointment in Seb’s involvement in this “bastardization” of jazz, but I’ve only ever seen that as her disappointment in Seb in giving up on his dreams. Now this is pretty subjective, but I think “Start a Fire” is a pretty good song. The scene where Seb is rehearsing with Keith earlier in the film isn’t funny because of the electronic beat added in, it’s Seb’s reaction to something so foreign being injected into the one thing he thinks shouldn’t be changed.

    Sure, he has his one club at the end. It has monuments to the jazz greats and an undiluted jazz sound throughout, but what else does he have? There’s no indication he has any romance in his life. He doesn’t seem to have changed. He’s driving the same car, has the same attitude, and he only has one club! He may have saved jazz for himself, but one club isn’t going to make the mark he plans for himself.

    I’m a casual jazz fan that loves the classics but bangs out the fusion jazz of Kamasi Washington and BadBadNotGood. I’m also a huge fan of yours and the /filmcast. I’ve been listening from the first few episodes and anytime I’ve disagreed (Swiss Army Man is immature garbage made for man children that don’t understand that women are people too), I’ve fumed all to myself. But to compare this to The Last Samurai. I understand the racial comparison based off the argument that is made. But I must disagree almost entirely.

    • I agree that you could easily interpret that first performance with Keith as Mia being disappointed in Seb vs. the Chazelle wanting us to hate the music. But I can’t shake the feeling that we are supposed to dislike it! It’s so showy and loud and seemingly against any ethos that Seb (our protagonist) has wanted.

      Also, Seb’s club at the end looks freaking badass. I think it is supposed to be aspirational, and that we are to believe he’s “made it”, but for the loss of his love.

      It sounds like we just interpreted the film differently. Which is all good! Thanks for reading, Dylan.

      P.S. Totally understand that Swiss Army Man is not everyone’s thing.

      • Dylan Schwan

        I just want to say I completely understand the argument to be made and your point of view. Maybe it was The Last Samurai comparison that got under my skin.

        And sorry for the Swiss Army Man slam. I’ve heard one too many podcasts tell me I NEED to love it.

        Thanks for the write-up and I’m loving the new re-vamped blog.

  • Orlando Sanchez

    Love you and your work to death Dave but I think you and many other pop culture writers deriding La La Land as a white savior film is a tenuous argument at best. Sebastian just happens to be white his whiteness isn’t an inherent character flaw. I don’t recall many of those same writers making the argument against Whiplash which also features a character who has a dogged devotion to the “purity” of jazz. The manufactured backlash reeks of cynicism on the part of for lack of a better word “saltiness” on account of the near certainty come Oscar night it will take the top prize over a drama about a gay black man. Which isn’t to say I don’t love moonlight (for the record I did) but I would be interested to see how different the reaction would be if we hadn’t just elected a demagogue. I think between you, Jeff, and Devindra,I believe Devindra was most spot on about how good La La Land is. My opinion is that the audience is supposed to side with Mia and be aghast at how Seb has to sell his soul (by making souless jazz pop closer to Michael Buble than Miles Davis) in order to make her happy in which case she would rather HE follow his dreams too. I’ll admit personally I LIKED Start a Fire but the audience primarily is supposed to find it as revolting as Jack Black’s character finds “I Just Called to say I Love You” in High Fidelity. Just my two cents I like when the podcast calls out criticisms in films but this reaction about white saviors in Jazz feels like complete sour grapes about the most infectious toe tapping and beautiful film I saw last year. Keep up the good work mate. Maybe a review for Hidden Figures in a later podcast. I think it has a good shot at a nom for the top prize.

    • Thanks for the perspective, Orlando. Hidden Figures is our next podcast review.

  • Alex Green

    I must confess my first reaction to La La Land was disappointment, having liked it but not loved it. For me my biggest issue was Mia and how I ended up finding her quite shallow. I have softened on this feeling on reflection but to me it felt like her dream was more to have money and live the high life rather than just being an actress and doing what she loves. Maybe it was the way it was shot but the scene where the car pulls up and she gets out just felt like a betrayal of her character. Was her dream only to be ‘on the other side of the coffee counter and be idolised ‘? As I said I don’t feel it so strongly now but it was definitely my initial reaction. The ending and final music number however was a gut punch and landed really well. I loved the notion of how they lost out on so much to achieve their dreams, though I guess it was more Mia’s dream rather than Sebs. He definitely got the raw deal.

    The biggest sin for me however is how the film completely gives up on being a musical. I’ve read interpretations that suggest it’s intention, as in they lose the music in their lives but i don’t completely buy it.

    Anyway, great podcast episode. Always enjoy your discussions around films. Wish you could have done an episode on Passengers cause that film is horrendous and has some majority misguided ideas..

    • disgruntledfilmstudent

      We devote so much time to seeing Gosling do his art. We see almost nothing of Stone do her art. He’s great at playing piano. She’s great at loving him. It’s a bizarre construction.

      I think the movie gives up on being a musical because its leads aren’t very good at singing or dancing. And a LOT of people are making excuses as though it’s intentional to make a point. “They’re just regular people swept up in a musical.” No they’re in show business. They’re literally performers. “They lose the music in their lives.” No, Chazelle realized the movie would fall apart if he gave any more time to showcasing Gosling’s voice.

      • Alex Green

        I would disagree on the singing and dancing parts. Some of the dance numbers are very complicated and I thing both leads handle them well, especially the number when they are on the hill overlooking LA. There’s an argument for the quality of the singing but it honestly didn’t offend me too much. If anything it’s the songs themselves that are problematic, the majority of which aren’t very catchy or memorable.

  • disgruntledfilmstudent

    I might be more forgiving of LLL’s white savior BS if not for Emma Stone being all “Jazz is Kenny G lololol” to justify Gosling explaining how great Jazz is. Chazelle sets up all Gosling’s foils as shallow parodies to make him look righteous.

  • puffypogostick

    Most of the audience is smart enough not to take La La Land literally as gospel.
    Are they naive enough to think that the technicolor city they see on screen is
    representative of its smoggy rainless clogged reality? Will they move there on a whim
    thinking they’ll write a million dollar screenplay? Just because there’s a “bad”
    contemporary jazz band featured in the movie doesn’t exclude there being
    lots of good ones in reality.

    If you were writing La La Land, who would you write as a tangible manifestation of the
    death knell to jazz (Is it really dying, it’s always been a niche genre for awhile now? It’s been
    said classical music has been dying for decades, it’s still going. For god sakes radio
    is dying!), the creation of so many other competitors for our attention span, social
    media, video games, the emergence of a vast cornucopia of music genres? Or maybe Sebastian falls into a Kenny G type band, but then you wouldn’t be able to get John Legend and who
    wants to listen to Kenny G?

    Given the restrictions (Hollywood conventions and business model) of what Chazelle had to work with, what would one have written instead? I think he did the best he could, he did cast an
    African American as a lead in Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, in LLL’s opening numbers,
    you saw more ethnicities (and body types) in 10 minutes than the entire running time of
    99.9% of classic movie musicals. I would loved to have seen Donald Glover in the lead
    instead, who knows, maybe he’ll be in a stage version, but it’s still the same argument
    critics would be making, only he’s the African American savior doing what
    he’s doing for all the wrong reasons.

    Maybe I’m just tone death to all this, I’ve been listening to jazz, old and new for years,
    no, decades and pieces like this sound overwrought, I agree w/your argument in spirit to some extent, but in the end, it’s just a movie and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but I’m not taking it literally or as gospel.

  • Terryl Dorian

    The “white savior of jazz” backlash is based on a basic misunderstanding of the film. The director, an award-winning jazz drummer who knows the history of the idiom inside out, is making fun of the common trope featuring a white jazz snob who wants to mothball an art form known for its constant reinvention at the hands of black artists. The Hoagy Carmichael joke is a giveaway.

    And for those a little slow on the uptake or ignorant of jazz history, Keith gives Seb a mini-lecture on the absurdity of a traditionalist worshipping revolutionaries like Monk or Clarke. The film’s criticism of Seb is gentle because the narrative loves its characters. But those who see in Seb’s search for jazz purity a message of white supremacy are just being, to put it charitably, a little dense.

  • Sarah Hart

    I’m about to say this as a white person, so my perspective may be biased by my privelege.

    However, what I get out of this article is a quite illiberal and collectivist message. It seems to be saying that if you happen to be born with black skin, you’re allowed to care about jazz music as much as you want, but if you happen to be born with white skin, you are not allowed to care about the state of jazz music. Or at least you are not allowed to care about the state of jazz music as much as black people are. Why should that be so? Why am I, as a white person, not allowed to have opinions on jazz music and whether it’s heading in the right direction or not?

    Any artist in any art form has opinions about the direction that medium is heading, whether it be rock, literature, film, etc. and I don’t think jazz is any different, and I don’t think it’s wrong for a white guy to have opinions on the state of jazz music. Maybe you think those opinions are wrong, but it seems like you think it’s immoral and racist for this white man to even have those opinions at all.

    I think this article is projecting quite a bit onto the movie in order to make it seem racist. It’s basically saying, “this guy has opinions on how jazz could improve, and jazz has its roots in black culture. In some really vague and abstract way, that’s kind of like how the West thought they knew how non-white countries could improve, and that idea resulted in horrible outcomes, therefore lala land is racist.”

    That seems like kind of a stretch to me.

    It kind of reminds me of the time when you where reviewing Precious. Adam Quigley brought up the fact that all the really good characters where light skinned black people, and he thought this was problematic. You asked something like, “do you think the director thinks white skinned black people are better than dark skinned black people?” He said no. Then you asked something like, “do you think he subconsciously thinks that light skinned black people are better than dark skinned black people?” He said maybe, but you thought that was far fetched.

    It’s a similar kind of thing here.

    Do you really think Damien Chazelle, on a conscious OR subconscious level, thinks jazz needs to be saved from black people? I don’t think so. I also don’t think anyone’s opinion was swayed in that direction by this movie, so what’s the problem?

  • puffypogostick

    La La Land Isn’t Racist.