Review: The mistreatment of jazz in “La La Land”

When you first set your eyes on “La La Land,” you gain an understanding of the amount of hype surrounding it.

The film is a charming romance that addressed insecurity, sacrifice and ambition. It played enchanting songs that are still stuck in my head and presented beautiful cinematography while channeling the magic and nostalgia of Hollywood.

There is this delicate, yet exciting chemistry between the two leads. The movie is stunning, awe-inspiring.

But if you know anything about music and representation, the movie will give you a sour taste in your mouth when Sebastian, the stoic pianist played by Ryan Gosling, talks about jazz.

“What do you mean you don’t like jazz?” he asked, staring at Mia, who is played by Emma Stone, in disbelief.

It is not Seb’s passionate love for jazz that is the problem. It is how the film handles his love for jazz.

Seb is presented as a man who wants to resuscitate jazz in Los Angeles as if it is on its last breaths. He is not just obsessed with jazz, he is set on restoring it to its former glory.

Seb’s pursuit to preserve the purity of jazz music feels loveless and hollow. His enemies come in the form of an indifferent public, ignorance from his significant other, and musical pragmatists such as Keith (John Legend), who produces synth-heavy jazz hybrid music with his band.

There are many instances of musicians, such as Robert Glasper, who have innovated the jazz genre while drawing inspiration from other sources. According to Jon Caramanica of The New York Times, it is as if Damien Chazelle, the movie’s director, can’t entertain that complexity.

In making Sebastian dead set on preserving the old form of jazz, the movie ends up having very little respect for jazz as a living art form. Looking backward is prized, while anyone advocating for change is mocked.

Furthermore, it did not seem like the people of color who were included in the movie were important to the story.

Black people invented jazz. The genre of music emerged from New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The only black person in the film was Keith, who was portrayed as a sellout for making music inspired by jazz. While Gosling would wax poetic about music, the black musicians playing behind him would be obscured by shadows, as if they were only there to provide a background for his angst.

Instead of having its roots in black history acknowledged, jazz is reduced to be exploited as a pop culture trinket, made romantic by nostalgia.

“La La Land” was beautiful, but it could have done so much better. If Sebastian really wanted to save jazz, he could have venerated its history and let people choose to like what they like about the genre instead of presenting it in such a rigid light.

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