Jazz Souls: La La Land and Whiplash Dim the Bright Lights of Success
*Spoilers for La La Land and Whiplash
Damien Chazelle bleeds on happy endings. He sets them up for his characters to walk across, wriggling the positive outcome as they make their way across the narrative, providing us with moments of “will they/won’t they” nervousness, but also trusting in the tried-and-true formula of Hollywood. He does this all before tugging on the happy ending so quickly and with such dexterity that he, the characters, and the audience stumble to the edge with scraped palms and knees bleeding into a different red carpet treatment. This bleeding, whether literal in the case of Whiplash or the figurative result of a broken heart as in La La Land, serves as a reminder that to be bleeding is to be human, is to compromise, is to accept that life and the art that imitates it has a cost and leaves a mess. Chazelle may operate under the guise of the familiar, our grand Hollywood tradition of beleaguered, undiscovered talents turned champs, meet-cutes turned romances for the ages, and the fulfillment of hearts’ and souls’ desire under the bright lights of the big city, but his films dance in and out, in and finally out of these fairy tales that cannot be. Despite La La Land being pushed by the bustle of awards season as the feel-good movie of the year, it’s far closer to Whiplash than it is to Singin’ in the Rain. As wonderful as the film is (and it is genuinely wonderful) La La Land has been so cloaked in glittering accolades and Hollywood back-patting that the harshness and hurt of the film has been pushed behind a curtain. It’s time to reconsider the language through which we discuss the film because as beautiful, funny, and charming as La La Land may be for the majority of its runtime, it’s just as loudly a film of stinging compromise, beaten and strung together in beautiful, jazzy melodies that both shine and scrape off the veneer of stardom.
Early in La La Land, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) explains the origins of jazz to Mia (Emma Stone). He describes it as a means for immigrants in the flophouse of New Orleans to communicate. Jazz became a way for all of these people speaking different languages to express themselves, to communicate whatever emotion they might be feeling. “It’s conflict, and its compromise, and it’s very, very exciting,” Sebastian says. Sebastian’s description doesn’t simply pertain to jazz, but also Chazelle’s films, of which jazz has been a central part. So if the basis of jazz is communication within confined spaces, what are Chazelle’s jazz films trying to communicate within their limited spaces?
A large part of success is idolization. For Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) in Whiplash and Sebastian and Mia in its director’s follow-up, their idols drive them and set a bar for them to reach. Their respective living spaces reveal their not-so-secret desires to not only be great, but to be great within the same breath as their most esteemed heroes. Andrew and Sebastian’s rooms are dimly lit spaces, dominated by records, jazz memorabilia, and little else. They cite their influences like badges of honor—Louis Armstrong, Buddy Rich, and most importantly Charlie Parker. Andrew’s battle of will against his instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is willfully endured by the young drummer so that he might become the next Charlie Parker. Sebastian wants to name his jazz club Chicken on a Stick in reference to Parker. Between both films, Parker becomes the ultimate musical aspiration and the consolidation of jazz for them.
Mia’s room reveals her own aspirations. It’s bright and crowded and defined by a giant painting of Ingrid Bergman that takes up an entire wall. Later, as Mia makes the walk that will lead her to the club where she first meets Sebastian, she passes The Hollywood Walk of Fame Mural, which features not only Bergman, but Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean among many others from a bygone era. This is the consolidation of Hollywood for her. While on the surface these references to Parker and classic Hollywood stars seem solely like tributes (“Here’s to the ones who dream”), they also point to a darker outlook on fame. Charlie Parker’s addiction to heroin and alcohol led to his death at 34, with his autopsy pointing towards the health of someone twice his age. Bergman was married three times with wildly publicized affairs that could arguably point towards a lasting search for lasting love. While she didn’t die of addiction, she did die young from breast cancer at 67. The rest of the names on the albums that fill Andrew and Sebastian’s apartments, and the faces that make up the mural that Mia so longingly walks by, are filled with tragedies both small and great, reminders that the city of stars is one of heartbreak too. A large part of success is tiny deaths.
“They don’t make films like this anymore,” promises La La Land’s marketing, a quote pulled from David Sexton’s Evening Standard review . But they (the “they” being Hollywood) have never made films like this and that’s the point. We know what Sexton’s quote alludes to within the context of Old Hollywood, and its intention to incite images of It Happened One Night, and films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but La La Land is only using the surface context of those films. Despite their trappings in nostalgia, La La Land and Whiplash tap into our knowledge of heavy heads wearing glorious crowns, and our modern sense of failure and success, one that has been muddled with a dream culled from the movies. Chazelle’s films challenge our ideas of accomplishment. So as much as we’d like to parade Whiplash and La La Land about as examples of films where hard work and following one’s dreams ultimately lead to love and success, that’s disingenuous to both films and to the realities of stardom. These are films where triumph and tragedy exist simultaneously, and where the brassy clash of real-world snaps us out of films that play like they might for typical romances. As magical as it is to see Mia and Sebastian float to the ceiling of the observatory and dance among the stars and clouds, logic tells us that they must come down.
Romance is sidelined in these films. Interestingly, both films use movie theaters as starting points for romance. In Whiplash, Andrew meets Nicole at the movie theater she works at, and in La La Land, Mia and Sebastian have their first date at a movie theater. The plush seats and big screen promise comfort and security in these relationships, because this is the movies after all. But neither relationship lasts, because when dealing with people in love with both art and another person, the art wins out in these films. And most unexpectedly according to the standard set by the films to which Chazelle plays homage, once the art wins there’s no going back to reclaim the romance. Andrew’s last act call to Nicole, now seeing someone else, and La La Land’s ending, go against the grain of movies where the spotlight can be shared between great art and great romance. Sebastian’s bandmate Keith asks him, “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Chazelle’s jazz films, which give every indication of holding onto the past, ultimately break tradition in their endings, breaking the ouroboros cycle of Hollywood-told love and success stories and pushing our view of fame towards a future that’s a little less romantic and successful than we’d like and are familiar with.
Following the release of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle told Screencrush in an interview “Fletcher will always think he won and Andrew will be a sad, empty shell of a person and will die in his 30s of a drug overdose. I have a very dark view of where it goes.” While La La Land is far less cynical in its approach, there’s still something dark about where we leave our characters. When the film cuts to “five years later” during the last act and we find Mia, a successful actress with a daughter and a husband who is not Sebastian, we immediately want this to be some kind of misconception, a filmic trick. Surely, this life is a film set or a dream, because the stories of the silver screen have so often told us that people who love each other achieve their dreams together, and ultimately end up together. But this turn at the end of La La Land is reality, a reality that hurts even more when Mia encounters Sebastian again at his club, and imagines the life they could have had if things had gone differently. Andrew, Mia, and Sebastian, aren’t characters who win in absolute terms. Andrew’s and Fletcher’s smiles at the end of Whiplash are temporary things, foreboding signs of inescapable destruction. Sebastian’s slight, sad smile and nod to Mia as she walks away from him for presumably the last time, is of recognition that they helped each other achieve their dreams, but in doing so lost each other. While both films end with a smile, these aren’t the smiles classic Hollywood was built on. These are smiles that have cost, that have weight backed by fallen idols and lost loves. These are smiles made from bleeding and there’s nothing more human than bleeding.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment