It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, a jazz film that’s not really about jazz, made La La Land. The musical, which went wide on Christmas Day, is receiving no small share of flack for its lack of singing and dancing. As if it were by accident that the writer/director forgot the most elemental aspects of the genre he was working in. Whiplash received similar complaints in 2014 when Richard Brody’s review tore the film apart for getting the music all wrong. Yet, music is only half the aim of Damien Chazelle’s films.
The music, singing, and dancing are in service to the thematic focus of ambition. He uses form to aid function. In between auditions, gigs for an 80s cover band, and serving lattes, Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meet, aggravate each other, and fall in love. Early infatuation is marked with a slew of song and dance numbers, but once the relationship troubles start, then the music is quick to cede. By utilizing the decreasing scenes as he does, Chazelle allows those performances to narrate the emotional narrative taking place. Mia and Sebastian are happy to sing and dance as a barista and a bar piano player. These jobs offer little more than scraping by, but it keeps them close enough to reach their dreams “one day.” As Sebastian and Mia watch each other’s dreams slowly drive a wedge between them, it’s clear that La La Land is another statement from Chazelle on ambition. The first statement obviously being Whiplash.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is defined by his drive to prove that his father’s mediocrity doesn’t run through his veins. Unbelievably, he draws the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and gets a spot in Fletcher’s jazz band. What he finds is that Fletcher uses intimidation and abuse to pan for genius in any students who don’t snap from the pressure first. Fletcher justifies the insults, abuse and generally insane behavior with a Charlie Parker anecdote. According to Fletcher, Parker once played so badly at a gig that drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head, “nearly decapitating him.” Without that humiliation, Fletcher suggests, Parker never would have become Bird.
Brody’s chief complaint of Whiplash in that his write-up is A) that the Parker event didn’t transpire the way Fletcher says it did and B) that Andrew doesn’t play music with other members of the academy. The first response to that is, of course, Fletcher is lying. He’s been shown to be completely unredeemable throughout the story, and his means of manipulation are out in the open. The second response would be: why would Andrew practice with anyone else? Andrew and Fletcher are all competitive id. They aim for greatness. Everything else, including human contact, is secondary. The name of the game for Chazelle is compromise. Artistry requires commitment, but without temperance, it takes over in unhealthy ways.
Take the last scenes from Whiplash and La La Land. Both final images seem to suggest a sort of redemption, but one knows better. Andrew, still glowing from his terrific performance, is bound to the same fate as Sean Casey, another of Fletcher’s victims. Chazelle has said as much himself in an interview with ScreenCrush. “Andrew will be a sad, empty shell of a person and will die in his 30s of a drug overdose.” The outlook for the Mia and Sebastian, while less fatal, is also likely to parallel Andrew’s. Despite the fond look exchanged, both dreamers have traded personal happiness for the trinkets of careerism. The smiles may linger for the camera, but they will be gone before long. Marquee dreams come at a price.
La La Land could have featured more musical numbers, but let’s not be hasty to sell the film short. With fewer lamposts for Gosling and Stone to swing around, the cost of their ambitions is much more brightly illuminated. Fewer genre trappings may keep La La Land from being a great musical, but, as a cynical response to the cost of ambition, the film stands on its own merit