Hollywood never seems to tire of taking on jazz.
Its filmmakers mock, distort, demean, misconstrue and, on rare occasions, capture the allure of a most elusive music.
For jazz thrives best not on the screen, where it’s frozen in two dimensions for all time, but in an intimate club, where musicians invent it on the spot for listeners who can lean in to savor it. When the performance ends, the music created on any given night escapes into the ether, never to be heard in the same way again.
The mystery and nocturnal glamour of jazz have seduced Hollywood from the dawn of talkies, when Al Jolson starred as The Jazz Singer (1927). But — with a few notable, glorious exceptions — jazz has fared poorly there ever since.
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So far as Hollywood is concerned, jazz is the province of sin (the Potterville sequence in It’s a Wonderful Life), mutants (the bar scene in Star Wars), buffoons (Forest Whitaker’s Charlie Parker in Bird), nerds (the record collector in Jerry Maguire) and thugs (Don Cheadle’s grotesque Miles Davis in Miles Ahead).
Perhaps it’s telling that the two best jazz films of the past three decades were made not in the United States, where the art form was conceived, but on foreign shores: the elegiac ’Round Midnight (1986) was the work of French director Bertrand Tavernier, and the brilliantly animated Chico & Rita (2010) was produced in Spain.
This checkered history brings us to La La Land, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who already had given jazz cinema another low point with his pulpy melodrama Whiplash (2014).
The pop-rock drum-bashing of that film’s overwrought protagonist, as well as the preposterousness of its plot — complete with truck crash, vats of fake blood and a make-or-break Carnegie Hall showdown — illuminated how little Chazelle either knew or cared about what jazz is. To him, it was but a vehicle for adrenaline-pumping hysterics.
With La La Land, Chazelle hasn’t fully atoned for his Whiplash sins, but he has gone a very long way toward making amends. For La La Land dares to contemplate the place of jazz in American life, a subject not often explored in modern mainstream films, let alone one framed essentially as a Gene Kelly movie musical.
On Tuesday, the movie was nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, including two in the Original Song category.
Jazz lovers may wince when the film’s jazz-pianist protagonist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), offers a cliche that serves as an underlying theme: “They say jazz is dying on the vine. And the world says: Let it die, it had its time.”
The alleged death of jazz, indeed, has been proclaimed for decades, notwithstanding the stature of new work by artists such as pianists Vijay Iyer and Marcus Roberts, trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, composer-arranger Maria Schneider, saxophonist Miguel Zenon, flutist Nicole Mitchell, violinist Regina Carter, singer Gregory Porter and scores more.
Marsalis went so far as to title one movement of his first great suite, The Majesty of the Blues (1989), with the bitterly ironic name, The Death of Jazz.
In a commercial music industry ever more obsessed with sales figures, the crowds that pack jazz rooms in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco and elsewhere don’t count for much. Nor do the students who vie to enter intensely competitive jazz programs in universities and high schools that blanket the country.
Jazz thrives in these places, but well outside the popular culture, a concern that troubles and very nearly destroys La La Land’s musician-hero.
It’s a worry that bothers real-life jazz musicians, as well. Some of the foremost figures of the music today have told me of the uphill battle they fight to get heard on radio, TV, film — anyplace that takes them outside the margins of American culture.
La La Land may state the issue crudely, as when the leader of a quasi-jazz-funk band, Keith (John Legend), bluntly tells Sebastian: “How you gonna save jazz if no one’s listening? … You’re playing to 90-year-olds.”
But writer-director Chazelle answers the question vividly, when we see Sebastian working far beneath his talents in Keith’s audience-pandering band, complete with shimmying female dancers. This sorry spectacle says, in essence, that the music must not be dumbed down to the audience; the audience must be enlightened to understand the music, which indeed Sebastian ultimately will try to do.
This idea stands as the antidote to Chazelle’s lowbrow Whiplash and, better still, to the widely held notion that artistic products with high sales figures are inherently superior to those with smaller audiences. In fact, the reverse is often true, a point that Chazelle reiterates throughout La La Land via the unfortunate compromises Sebastian accepts, the price he pays for them and his attempts to redeem himself through art.
Chazelle makes his most eloquent case for jazz, however, not so much in the words that are spoken or the circuitous plot he has devised, but in the admiring, often heroic way he presents the music. When Sebastian plays his first extended piano solo in a restaurant where no one is paying attention, he segues from the dismal Christmas-song set list ordered by his boss (J.K. Simmons, who played the absurdly villainous teacher in Whiplash) to the music he wants to perform.
Suddenly the room goes dark, a brilliant spotlight engulfs him, and through sight and sound we’re transported out of reality and into a kind of reverie.
This may seem a hyper-romantic artifice to some viewers, but that’s what happens when a gifted musician discovers the profound sounds within him. We leave our everyday surroundings and enter another realm.
This scene, and other La La Land fantasy sequences like it, argue for how jazz in particular — and art in general — can transcend the mundane and take us to a more inspired place. That’s why we go to jazz clubs, to feel something that TV screens and smartphones and Top 40 hits cannot provide.
La La Land conveys the rush of what happens to performer and listener during a great jazz solo better than most films that attempt it. That the movie does so by specifically referencing the dance steps and fantasy sequences of choreographer Gene Kelly, especially his work in An American in Paris (itself a heartfelt homage to jazz) only deepens its appeal.
Having made a large artistic leap from Whiplash to La La Land, Chazelle seems poised to one day create something the world of cinema needs: a profound film on the original American art form — jazz.