JANUARY 2, 2017
LA LA LAND is the latest in a series of jazz movies by Damien Chazelle, the wunderkind director of Whiplash (2014) and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Unlike Guy and Madeline, a shaggy, nouvelle vague–inspired musical, or Whiplash, a dark tale of a twisted student-teacher relationship, La La Land is in all ways a sunny film, and one that wants badly to please. Its story is simple: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a crabby jazz pianist with a restaurant gig playing Christmas standards; Mia (Emma Stone) works at the coffee shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot while auditioning for parts in bad television shows. Neither has been particularly successful, but they are both dreamers: Mia dreams of acting in movies, Sebastian of owning a jazz club to preserve the “real” jazz of years past. When they initially meet, they hate each other, of course; then they fall in love — also, of course.
Chazelle experiments with one visual trick and then the next, from a zero-gravity dance sequence in the Griffith Observatory that takes the characters into space to a dream ballet at the film’s conclusion that evokes An American in Paris. Although it’s a more polished musical than Guy and Madeline — Chazelle’s senior thesis film at Harvard — La La Land still feels like an amateur affair. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are charming presences, but they are not accomplished singers, and Stone can’t dance. One wonders, then: Why were they cast in the first place? The practical explanation is obvious — they are movie stars — but in that case, why is La La Land a musical at all? Most of the story is told outside of its musical numbers, which are peppered in to add flavor but don’t drive the engine of the plot. (The film features two break-up scenes; the fact that neither of them takes the form of a ballad suggests the narrative was constructed around music, not by it.)
As confectionary and slight as La La Land may be, it is nevertheless an illuminating addition to Chazelle’s growing oeuvre of movies about musicians. Chazelle, who once had ambitions of becoming a jazz drummer, has instead pursued the subject on film: Guy and Madeline features a trumpeter; Whiplash, a drummer; La La Land, a pianist. All of these characters, in one way or another, are fixated on their craft and on the culture of jazz. Music is the guiding force in their lives, often to the detriment of their interpersonal relationships. In La La Land, Chazelle broadens his focus on artists to include actors; and, for the first time, offers a woman the same artistic ideals as his perpetually male musicians. But if he is trying to say something about what art is and the role that it plays in the artist’s life, his message is cloudy, contradictory, and often perturbing. Chazelle’s vision of art, from Guy and Madeline to Whiplash to La La Land, is variously masochistic, obsessive, self-righteous, and aggressively male.
It is initially jarring to consider La La Land and Whiplash as works by the same filmmaker; stylistically, if not thematically, they could not be less similar. While La La Land is bright and colorful, Whiplash is dark and deliberately punishing to watch. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, studying the drums. Early in the film, he is selected by the tyrannical Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) to be alternate drummer in the school’s elite studio band. What unfolds is a study in bad pedagogy: Fletcher is abusive both verbally (“If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig”) and physically (he throws a chair at Andrew’s head and repeatedly slaps him to get him on tempo). The world of the conservatory, and consequently the world of the film itself, is crudely masculine and fundamentally homosocial. As a result, while not textually erotic, music in Whiplash functions less as a rarefied cultural phenomenon and more as a physically primal — and connotatively sexual — act.
The ultimate message of Whiplash is this: the harder you push someone, the crueler you are, the better they will become — at least, if they are “great.” Andrew is fixated on becoming “one of the greats,” and Fletcher is correspondingly driven by his desire to produce a student who will one day join the ranks of Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, using this desire to justify his sadistic style of pedagogy. It should go without saying that this is absurd. Students do not thrive under abuse, and the notion that an abstract “greatness” will protect anyone against mistreatment is equally ludicrous. And yet there has always been something seductive about the idea that simply working hard — working really hard, as Andrew does in this film — will create or reveal greatness. The film mobilizes and perverts the familiar narrative that, for men especially, the ability to endure immense abuse without cracking is considered a virtue. And in Whiplash that virtue is fetishized, valorized, and ultimately rewarded — not only with artistic triumph but also, finally, with acknowledgment and love from the abuser.
If Whiplash is a sadomasochistic love story, La La Land is as vanilla as they come. Sebastian and Mia are presented as basically decent people who always want the best for each other, and when their initially idyllic relationship begins to sour, it’s less because of their personal failures than it is the result of outside forces putting roadblocks in their path. Their romance begins with music, and specifically with Mia’s response to Sebastian’s music — to his art. Although it is refreshing to see Chazelle branching out to female artists in La La Land, Sebastian’s drive and dedication are more textured than Mia’s, and it is his melody that recurs through the film to denote particularly important moments in their relationship. He is the author of their relationship: he comes to ask her out at work; he introduces her to jazz; he takes her to see Rebel Without a Cause for research (despite the fact that she is the actor and supposed cinephile); he suggests that she write something herself since she can’t get a part, prompting her to write a one-woman play and quit her job; through an extraordinary stroke of luck, he lands a gig which leads to their breaking up; later, when Mia’s play has failed and she has retreated home to Nevada, it is Sebastian who gets the call from a casting agency about a major audition, and drives out to find her and implores her to give acting one last go. (She gets the part.)
It is worth momentarily considering the currently accelerating Oscar race, in which La La Land is seen as a major player. Since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, the general consensus among critics has been that Emma Stone is a likely candidate to win Best Actress, while Ryan Gosling is seen as having no chance to win Best Actor — it is, they agree, really “her movie,” and he is there to facilitate. They may feel this way because Stone is so charming (though Gosling is no less so), or because her final audition scene is a barnburner musical number. But in a literal, pragmatic sense, the movie is not hers. It is Sebastian’s.
In light of Chazelle’s earlier films, this is not surprising. He is particularly attached to scenes in which men teach women how to play musical instruments, explain music to them, or play music for them: Guy (Jason Palmer) teaches his mother to play the piano and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) gets a lesson from a male drummer; Guy plays for both his girlfriend Madeline and Elena (Sandha Khin), the girl that he leaves her for; later, Madeline dates another older musician. Andrew rattles off information about the music playing in the pizza to his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Sebastian, of course, plays for Mia and teaches her to appreciate jazz. Music, then, effectively serves as both an emotional conduit and a subtle affirmation of power: where Fletcher uses his status as Andrew’s teacher as a cudgel to assert his dominance, Guy and Sebastian — and, indeed, Andrew — maintain their status as the more worldly, dominant partner in a subtler way, through the assertion of their artistic skill and cultural knowledge. With the exception of Mia, the women on the receiving end of this treatment are directionless and therefore ideal counterparts: Madeline’s field in graduate school is never specified, Nicole doesn’t even know her major, and all we know about Elena is that she is so incompetent that she has to have a man show her how to boil water. (That is the stuff of fantasy.)
La La Land ends with a jump forward in time, which reveals to us that Sebastian does indeed get to open his jazz club, and that Mia does wind up a famous movie star — working (and drinking coffee) at the Warner Brothers lot, no less. But while Sebastian’s success and fulfillment has come through a business, Mia’s is personal: in addition to a house straight out of a design magazine, she has landed a stupendously bland husband (Tom Everett Scott) and a child. We do not see her acting, or indeed any sense of her work, although we do see Sebastian’s club in detail. Her professional success has manifested less as creative fulfillment than as luxury, and it is ultimately subordinate to her role as a wife and a mother.
She and Sebastian see each other one last time when she and her husband happen to walk past his jazz club and wander inside: when he sees her, he takes over the piano from the musicians playing and plays “their” song, prompting the film’s best sequence, its dream ballet, a fantasy of the life they could have led. He communicates to her through music, just as he did at the beginning of the film, and she is visibly moved. His music has provided the film’s emotional language throughout, and here he once again “writes” the long fantasy of their alternate life. This is a trick that Chazelle has used before, not only in Whiplash but also in Guy and Madeline — when Guy tries to convince Madeline (at this point his ex-girlfriend) to stay in Boston by playing her his new piece of music, and it (somehow) says everything he cannot. In that case, she stays; in La La Land, the distance between Mia and Sebastian is too far to bridge. But while Mia may be on more even footing with Sebastian than Madeline is with Guy, Chazelle still silences her at the end of the film, and instead privileges Sebastian’s “voice.” It is impossible to imagine one of Chazelle’s men in a subordinate position to a woman’s creative expression: while Mia spends multiple scenes throughout the film listening to Sebastian play, he never sees her act. He doesn’t even go to her play. But his final message to her sums up the entire film in a single beautiful sequence that the film has not earned.
La La Land is not, in the end, so very different from Whiplash, for all their tonal differences. Above all, the vision they paint of the artistic life is masculine. In Damien Chazelle’s movies, men have power, and they get (almost) everything they want: Guy gets Madeline, Andrew gets greatness (and Fletcher), and Sebastian gets his club (if not Mia). And women? All they get to do is listen.
Morgan Leigh Davies is a master’s student in Victorian literature at the University of Oxford. She is the co-host of the pop culture podcast Overinvested and her work has been featured at Brooklyn Magazine, The Toast, and Bright Wall/Dark Room.