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Pop CultureFebruary 6, 2017

Why La La Land’s celebration of jazz kind of misses the point

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Jazz-fan Mitchell Houlbrooke takes issue with La La Land‘s depiction of jazz authenticity.

La La Land is the sort of movie that makes you skip out of the theatre. It’s a musical in the best sense of the word, and despite being cruel to the tear ducts, it leaves you with a sense of self-determination that God knows we all need in these times. So why then, days later, could I not shake a sense that there was something not quite right about it?

Turns out I wasn’t the only one, and much better writers than me have written about how the film misses the point of jazz. By a lot. There’s still room on this internet for a more down-to-earth explanation of precisely what’s gone wrong here, particularly for those who, like Mia in the film, don’t really listen to jazz.


So basically, the main dude in this film is a pianist and loves jazz. He wants to run a jazz club, but that’s not very lucrative as the audience for jazz is forever shrinking. After a successful run of touring with a more commercial band (that still gives him license to be creative) he finally gets to open his own club and presumably plays ‘My Funny Valentine’ until the end of days.

So what’s wrong with that? How could anyone be offended?

Let’s make this clear: The jazz in this movie is awesome. From the opening song-and-dance spectacular, to the actual jazz bands, to Sebastian’s impressionistic piano solos, this movie is chock-full of incredible music that will convert even the most singleted Pantera listener to the wonders of trumpet, sax and drum solos. All that stuff. I have absolutely no grievance with any of the music in this movie.

The problem is how it’s positioned. Sebastian doesn’t want to play in John Legend’s pop group for too long because it’s a far cry from the traditional jazz that he prefers. And he certainly doesn’t want to play keytar for the ‘80s cover band at weddings either, because synthpop is utter trash compared to the glorious intellectual art-form of pure jazz… Right?

A normal movie would call out this assholery right away. “Y’know Sebastian, no one genre has a monopoly on authenticity, maybe throw on a Phil Collins album sometime, you might appreciate its tasteful snare drum sound.” But no. La La Land actually endorses it. At the end of the movie, the message that comes through loud and clear is that REAL jazz is five dudes playing sax, trumpet, piano, double bass (not electric bass you fucking philistine) and a drum kit. Two toms, max. Anything else is a perversion.

The thing is, that’s not my experience of jazz. Or the experience of anyone else I know either. No doubt that at a point in time, that was the peak, that was the “authentic” experience, but it has grown so much since then. Jazz at its core is any music borne out of a collective negotiation in real-time*. You can play jazz with any instrument, any song, and any musician. It’s an alive kind of music (not that any other kind is “dead” of course). It’s music where people communicate, clash, team-up, go full lone-wolf, or do whatever it is they need to do in that moment to get whatever is in them out.

The jazz of La La Land excludes the music of Reuben Bradley and Myele Manzanza, who are creating whole new worlds from behind their drumkits several times a week. The jazz of La La Land excludes the amazing performances of Nathan Haines, soloing his ass off over spinning vinyl. The jazz of La La Land couldn’t even give the time of day to St. Germain’s triumphant fusion of French house and pure musicianship.

People are going to come out of La La Land with a desire to hear more of what they heard in the movie. And that couldn’t make me happier. But I worry. I worry that they’re going to think that what they hear and see in that film is the entirety of what “real” jazz is, and when they venture out into the jazz scene in real life, they’re going to be disappointed, confused, or uncomfortable. I want them to know the truth – that jazz is inclusive. Not just inclusive of people, but of music as a whole. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you play, a great jazz performance will find a way to make the best use of each musician’s unique voice.

Just talking about it makes my eyes mist up, so I need to stop typing soon, but La La Land utterly fails to get across these ideas, and that’s a huge shame. There are more problems with it – how it deals with jazz audiences, how it portrays race, and how it portrays gender – all outside the scope of this piece but equally problematic.

If you just walked out of La La Land and liked what you heard, then hell yes. You just took your first step into a larger world that I hope will be as welcoming, fulfilling, and exciting as it has been for me. Just keep on taking those steps.

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