At the end of a tumultuous week in the western world, I have to confess to a struggle to find escape in my usual forms of entertainment. So, with that in mind I decided it was time for a musical. Yes, I was among the last people to actually see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. I loved every minute.
The mad ones
Jack Kerouac wrote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.
La La Land is a film about those mad ones, the dreamers, the determined, the romantics, and the restoration of hope in a world that can appear bleak. The purity — advocated by Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian and exhibited by Emma Stone’s Mia— associated with staying true to one’s dreams.
Throughout La La Land, Sebastian advocates an approach of chasing such dreams to the ends of the earth. His own dream? To own his own jazz club, named Chicken on a stick (an awful name he chooses in homage to Bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker’s favorite food). It’s a dream which, it is suggested in an early conversation with his sister (the always excellent Rosemarie DeWitt), has been derailed temporarily for him by a bad business deal. In the interim he’s playing paid piano gigs until he gets back on his feet.
By contrast Mia, seems more level headed. Working by day as a waitress in a cafe on the Warner Bros. lot, she’s an aspiring actress, teetering on the cynical, a veteran of the Hollywood audition process.
In a less verbose way though, Stone’s character is as much of a dreamer as Sebastian. Inspired by her aunt at a young age to become an actress through their shared love of film, and the way in which her aunt lived her life, the willingness to remain true to that calling is reinforced by her encounter with Sebastian. It is important to note that her career path was not created by him.
In fact, of the two, Mia is the one who “sells out” the least and is more honest. It isn’t Mia who is playing Christmas songs in a restaurant, or playing the “key-tar” in an 80’s tribute band, or watering down jazz music in a modern jazz-funk combo. She is a waitress and an aspiring actress. Those two occupations are long recognized as going together as a milestone combination on the road to stardom.
More than that though it is Mia who pushes through the pain barrier to achieve recognition for her art. By contrast Sebastian compromises on his art to achieve his dream of being a jazz club owner. He did not pursue an artistic dream of becoming the greatest jazz pianist, but rather a dream of creating a new space to revere the work of others, and to keep the spirit of jazz music alive.
Their relationship begins (excluding a minor encounter in traffic) with a “false start” meeting. This sees Sebastian rudely bumping past Mia, having been summarily dismissed from his job as restaurant background pianist. Thankfully fate brings them together again at a subsequent LA pool party and it is on that later occasion that the two strike a more harmonious chord (to the tune of I ran by Flock of Seaguls as it happens). The film then charts the course of their relationship from its beginning to its end. Much has been said about the ending, but in a film about jazz, it perfectly hits the right notes of bittersweet melancholy.
The film is romantic, in the widest sense of that word. Its message is as follows – If you feel like you have talent or a calling, then believe in yourself and pursue that talent or calling, whatever it is for as long as it takes. It guides the viewer not to light one’s candle and hide it under a bushel, but rather put it on display and light up the house. Worst case scenario you’ll be older and you won’t have made it. You can however rest easy in your final days knowing that you’ve done everything to make it happen, a truth to which Mia’s aunt can attest.
Pushing beyond the expected
My viewing of La La Land was particularly timely because the film enshrines the American dream, as I see it, in its purest form. That dream doesn’t promote a sense of entitlement for everyone. Likewise it doesn’t advocate pursuing a misguided dream that is unsupported by talent, or because you’ve been bankrolled by your Daddy (are you listening Mr Trump?).
The film simply promotes the pursuit of perfection in one’s art in order to fully achieve one’s dream. It doesn’t accept succumbing to the easy way out, but instead instructs the viewer to follow perfection in their calling until he or she has nothing left to offer up. Mia ultimately reaches this position, pushing herself to the limits in the process.
Damien Chazelle’s previous film Whiplash, drove the same message home in a more extreme fashion. That film saw its central character Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) being pushed to breaking point in his jazz studies (drums) by conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The following exchange in that film on Charlie Parker (the jazz musician referred to above) unlocks the key to that film:-
Fletcher: “I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you that story about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?
Andrew: Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.
Fletcher: Exactly. Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax. Gets up to play at a cutting session, and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night, but the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices and he practices with one goal in mind, never to be laughed at again. And a year later, he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage, and plays the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard.
So imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” And then Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying.”
We see in La La Land those same lessons that occur in Whiplash, only they are taught less brutally and more sweetly. In Mia’s case she is instructed by the passionate but insistent voice of Sebastian. In Whiplash it is the conductor Fletcher delivering the same message. Whiplash suggested the following answer to the question of whether you can go too far in pursuing one’s artistic ambition,
Andrew: But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far, and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?
Fletcher: No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.
In La La Land, Sebastian explains to his sister his similar approach to that expounded by Fletcher in Whiplash, stating, “I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I’ll hit back. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.” It’s a message that he conveys to Mia, pushing her to one last audition after she has lost the will and fight to do so. It’s that very audition, the one she nearly gave up on, which clinches her dream. She hits life back with a classic rope-a-dope.
Life lessons from jazz
At the heart of La La Land is jazz music. What is wonderful about jazz music is that it operates within a set frame, but within that frame, like visual art the sonic canvass is blank. The musician is free to portray whatever he or she wants in that space. No rule binds them, and the beauty is found in the individuals that can tear up the rule book.
The history of jazz is littered with artists who have done just that. Louis Armstrong is cited in La La Land, as is the aforementioned Charlie Parker — both groundbreaking artists. Others pioneers include Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman who pushed the form to new places.
There is no doubt about it — jazz (and its cousin blues music) forms America’s central and unique gift to the world of music. Born in the poorest parts of black America in the 20th Century the form rapidly and extensively adapted and developed (aided by the advent of recorded music) in such a staggeringly compressed timescales that it now leaves musicians puzzled since the 1960s as to where to take it next.
Jazz and its forms are placed front and centre within La La Land. To describe the film as a “musical” in the sense of genre, is a misdirection. The film’s dialogue, its message, the inspiration — all are rooted in the jazz form.
As we enter the era of the 45th President, I’ll conclude with a little reminder as to why La La Land, and those lessons from jazz music were so important to be reminded of on Friday.
Firstly jazz as a musical promotes personal freedom of expression without fear of being ‘wrong’.
Secondly, and just as importantly, jazz also requires those musicians, playing different instruments with different sounds, expressing their own unique ideas to play in a way that compliments rather than diminishes one another — it promotes diversity working in a collective environment.
Thirdly, jazz as a musical form is blind to race, skin color, sexuality, gender, religion — close your eyes and tell me if you can tell me the background of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Ahmad Jamal, or Hiromi Uehara without knowing the name of the artist beforehand.
Fourthly La La Land as a film was a fantasy construct, a film so beautiful in its ability to detach from reality, from its very opening scene, that it provides the perfect sweetener for a tough message. The message? To persevere past hardship towards your calling in life. At the same time the film was funny, had great music, and the dancing was a ray of light (we all need much more of these things in our life). As a film it encourages the viewer to see the romance and magic in life, and to appreciate both the highs and lows, the major and the minor chords, and most of all keep on pushing towards better things.
If you want to be reminded of these important lessons, and haven’t seen it yet you may wish to buy a one-way ticket to La La Land soon. It is a short, but very worthwhile trip.