Category Archives: jazz

La La Land (2016)

It’s not going to replace The Sound of Music in the pantheon of greatest musicals, but it’s a nice throwback to Old Hollywood with a modern sensibility.

La La Land is the kind of film that you thought was consigned to the scrap heap of Hollywood history.  In other words, it’s a boy-meets-girl love story with song and dance performed by two charismatic and attractive leads.  It’s colorful. It’s fun. It’s a film with a smile on its face that wants to entertain you. Ryan Gosling is the idealistic jazz musician, Sebastian, and Emma Stone is aspiring actress, Mia. Even with its bittersweet ending, the film is refreshing because of its unabashed old fashioned approach.

Besides the love story, La La Land deals with the question of what it means to be an artist and how to be true to your principles by finding your own voice. Sebastian is the quintessential jazz purist who wants to rescue jazz from cultural oblivion. He dreams of opening a club that features Honest Jazz, but bides his time playing lounges and 80’s cover bands. Mia is just another actress hunting for scraps in the Hollywood meat grinder until Sebastian encourages her to tell her own stories by developing her long abandoned writing.

More specifically, the film addresses the ideological divide in jazz between innovation and tradition, and which takes priority when it comes to attracting audiences. Is jazz a fixed tradition with specific, definable parameters or is it a blank slate which must incorporate modern technology and borrow from other idioms in order to innovate and attract audiences? In Sebastian’s case, his version of artistic radicalism was to return to jazz tradition despite being given an opportunity to play in John Legend’s globetrotting pop/R&B act.

In one scene, the film reveals the chasm of misperception that lies between the jazz aficionado and the casual consumer. Mia tries to explain that she finds Kenny G perfectly enjoyable and had no objection to her parents’ affinity for smooth jazz as background music. Instead of being an elitist snob, Sebastian draws her attention to the musical action happening on the combo performing in front of them.  The film clearly wants us to see the beauty in jazz that Sebastian sees and show what makes jazz such a dynamic and rich art form.

Where La La Land really shines is in the romance between Sebastian and Mia. How long has it been since Hollywood unironically presented the pursuit of love and companionship between a man and a woman as a virtue? Hollywood has been so far up its own ideological ass for so many years trying to fulfill every politically correct agenda that a scene with Sebastian and Mia holding hands in a theater while watching Rebel Without a Cause feels pretty radical. 

It’s multicultural, but it is blessedly free of hamfisted racial or identity politics. Sebastian’s sister marries a black man, but they didn’t insert some tortured narrative about racism. The jazz club scenes contained multiracial audiences and showed people getting along and having a great time enjoying an art form that has succeeded in building cultural bridges.  Since Hollywood seems so solidly intent on propping up politically divisive narratives by constantly emphasizing America’s sordid history in films like Race and Birth of a Nation, the absence of these tiresome themes in La La Land is noticeable and welcome.

The film is not just a candy coated sugar high though. The tradeoffs, compromises, self doubt and financial insecurities which come with the territory of being an artist create the emotional and dramatic tension between the characters. Artistic idealism is an admirable virtue, and one which resonates with me, but Damien Chazelle is correct to point out that absent clear communication, the pursuit of a stable family life and the artistic dream can easily become irreconcilable goals.  It’s great to see that the pursuit of artistic individualism is upheld as a heroic virtue, but it’s worth remembering that it is not an ironclad promise of financial remuneration or commercial recognition.

Needless to say, the SJW media factions and progressive Twitterati have predictably heaped condemnation on La La Land for the very reasons that it’s good.  Hopefully, studios will pay more attention to the positive acclaim and box office receipts, think twice about pushing ideological agendas, and remember that people enjoy being entertained and watching attractive people fall in love on screen.

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Whiplash (2014)

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Yes, I enjoyed it.
  
And as much as I can appreciate the criticisms I’ve heard from other musicians, I generally believe that criticisms of the musical content or whether the behavior of the JK Simmons character was realistic are completely beside the point.
   
This is essentially a story of a toxic student/teacher relationship, the pursuit of the brass ring of being an artist and more broadly, an exploration of the pursuit of excellence itself.
   
Of course the JK Simmons’ Fletcher character was over the top and it strains the imagination that he’d get away with the opprobrium he dispensed in any college environment.
 
But this is a drama and the whole idea is to convey…..well….. drama. Though I never personally experienced anything even remotely close to that, Fletcher represented a mentality I absolutely experienced in music school but taken to a hyperbolic extreme.
   
Fletcher was the archetypal drill sergeant hard ass.  He was the guy who was going to tear you apart and force you to reclaim the remnants of your self-respect.  He was the guy who was unrepentantly abusive when people underperformed because you knew that nothing less than perfection was expected.
  
The aspect of the Fletcher character that I found most interesting was the idea that a teacher felt any compulsion to behave in that way to produce results. Most people have heard the Buddy Rich bus tapes so there is real world evidence of that kind of abuse. There are undoubtedly other examples of professionals and educators who’ve resorted to similar tactics.
   
But what kind of art gets produced under those emotional conditions? Does it reinforce the myth of the artist who must relinquish any idea of pleasure, fun or joy in favor of some kind of self-imposed austerity and grim determination?  Does it limit the range of emotion an artist can express or expand it?
   
Miles Teller’s Andrew ultimately prevails and finds a courage within himself, but he pays a steep personal price in order to obtain it.
   
I will concede one point of extreme suspension of disbelief. Fletcher sets up the climactic concert with a pep talk to the band.  He reminds them that careers get hatched at these showcases. Representatives from Blue Note and….wait for it…… ECM will be in attendance.
 
Right.
  
I’m sure Manfred Eicher will be seeking his next artist to sit beside Ralph Towner, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, and Dave Holland at a college big band showcase.
   
Quibbles notwithstanding, I enjoyed it. And I’m enjoying seeing drummers being canonized in popular culture.