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La La Means … What Exactly?

Editor Evan Haga thinks out loud about what jazz means to a hit film, and vice versa

Damien Chazelle (left) directs Ryan Gosling in La La Land (photo by Dale Robinette/Lionsgate)
Damien Chazelle (left) directs Ryan Gosling in "La La Land" (photo by Dale Robinette/Lionsgate)

I had a grand time defending Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film, Whiplash, as it made its ascent toward the multiplexes. Whether cynical or idealistic, jazz defenders took aim at this tremendously entertaining flick early and often, as if refusing to realize that Chazelle used jazz education as the springboard for a fine genre movie, or a few of them at once—psychodrama, horror, sports. Over and over, I heard or read a preposterous argument that a better film would’ve accurately portrayed the joys and challenges of formal jazz mentorship. Until Clint Eastwood directs my spec script, Jamey Aebersold’s Summer Jazz Workshop: The Awakening, give me a break. Or, to quote the great playwright David Mamet: “[Drama is] not about nice things happening to nice people.”

More important, for all its missed or weird details—I recall a rival-drummer character at the elite school admitting he can’t memorize tunes—Whiplash understands the melodramatic, adolescent plight of the ambitious music student: the nerves, the competitive fury, the dreams of grandeur, the self-sabotaging perfectionism, the self-righteous dedication. I suspected Chazelle was writing from experience, and I was right. “There was a phase in my life, it was mainly high school into college, where music and specifically jazz drumming, as you see in Whiplash, was everything for me,” Chazelle told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It had a lot to do with a very intensive jazz program at my high school that I was a part of, and a very demanding teacher, and certain emotions I felt as a young player, where the kind of enjoyment and appreciation of the art of music was inextricably wrapped up in fear and dread and anxiety about getting something wrong.”

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