Spring 2019

La La Land Is a Hit, but Is It Good for Jazz?

Krin Gabbard

The debates around La La Land (2016) tell us a great deal about the state of jazz today and perhaps even in the near future. Many critics have charged that the film has very little real jazz, while others have emphasized the racial problematics of making the white hero a devout jazz purist while characterizing the music of the one prominent African American performer (John Legend) as all glitz and tacky dance moves. And finally, there is the speech in which Seb (Ryan Gosling) blithely announces that “jazz is dead.” But the place of jazz in La La Land makes more sense if we view the film as a response to and celebration of several film musicals, including New York, New York (1977), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Both La La Land and Demy’s film connect utopian moments with jazz, and push the boundaries of the classical Hollywood musical in order to celebrate the music.

Krin Gabbard is an Adjunct Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus (2016), Hotter than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (2008), and Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (2004) and editor of Jazz Among the Discourses (1995).

Damien Chazelle, a serious jazz aficionado since childhood, has made the music central to both the plot and the score of his film La La Land (2016). If nothing else, the omnipresence of jazz in a film so widely honored suggests that jazz still has some resonance with audiences. But like almost every other American film that would represent jazz, La La Land runs smack up against racial issues. The film’s appropriation of jazz in the face of the music’s complicated racial histories has driven a backlash against the film. Critics objected to the prominence of two white stars in a film about that uniquely African American cultural practice, jazz. To make matters worse, Keith (John Legend), the one important black character in the film, creates commodified pop music and even features tacky dance routines in his stage shows.

Although I found much of the film exhilarating and moving, I am more than a little uncomfortable with La La Land’s racial politics. Nevertheless, I argue that the film navigates some treacherous waters with intelligence and charm and that . . .

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