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.