Damien Chazelle: Jazz in La La Land

By: Ryan Nelson

Jazz musicals have been staples of Broadway, Hollywood and even radio since the 20th century. Director Damien Chazelle pays homage to the jazz musical genre with La La Land, a 2016 film that has received several accolades and is believed to be a strong contender for the upcoming Oscar nomination season.

As a musical genre, jazz has played an important role in Hollywood both as a plot device and as a versatile soundscape. Some of the best jazz films are not musicals; they are actually biopics such as Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood, or Round Midnight, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Jazz biopics often portray music both as a blessing and as a burden, and this is something that Damien Chazelle understands very well.

Chazelle is not only a filmmaker; he is also a jazz musician who understands the blessing and burden dichotomy, particularly in terms of performance. Jazz virtuosity is rarely a product of raw talent; the best performances are cathartic due to their intensity. Chazelle attempted to reach this level of performance in high school when learning jazz drumming, but he accepted failure. His 2013 film Whiplash deals with this sentiment, which is also explored in La La Land, a film that is receiving serious Oscar buzz.

The subject of jazz in Chazelle's films will particularly appeal to musicians and fans who subscribe to Downbeat and who enjoy the bebop revival of the last few years as much as they enjoyed the time when swing and big band jazz made a comeback in the 1990s. In La La Land, Ryan Gosling stars as a struggling jazz pianist who is passionate about performing and pleasing audiences of a genre he feels is not getting the attention it deserves. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a struggling actress who is as passionate as she is unsuccessful at her chosen craft.

The beauty of jazz as it is perceived by those who are passionate about it drives La La Land in a sublime manner. The musical score and choreography are magical and serve to depict the hope that drives performers to keep going in the face of certain failure. Interestingly, the stars at the center of La La Land do not find everlasting love together; however, their artistic dreams do come true as they wonder what life could have been like as a couple.

Chazelle has mentioned that young jazz purists these days may feel disenfranchised, and that their practical dreams become harder to achieve as they get older. This does not mean that their inner passion will dwindle or that jazz will one day evaporate; it will live on thanks to artists such as Chazelle.