Monday, March 6, 2017

La La Land turns jazz into an exotic Third World country

I actually liked the movie. But I was set up for disappointment because I had convinced myself that it was about jazz. It's more accurate to call La La Land a love story that uses jazz as an exotic backdrop much the way Hollywood movies use war-torn underdeveloped countries as the setting for stories about white people that have nothing to do with the country in question. La La Land was about jazz in the same way that Out of Africa was about Kenya.

For the average viewer, this doesn't matter in the slightest. I don't think it should. But one could imagine that if a director used, say, Malawi or South Sudan as exotic locations for movies that had nothing to do with those places, people who are from those places would be a bit miffed about being relegated to the background. As a relatively informed jazz enthusiast, I felt a bit like a citizen of one of those places that Hollywood sums up with a few shots of riotous urban tumult, mist-covered mountains or jungle dwellers clad in loin-cloths.

So I'll apologize in advance if I sound like the snarky movie critics who grace the back pages of the New Yorker as I explain a few things I didn't love about La La Land (Warning: mild plot spoilers ahead).

First, it's hard not to be disappointing by a musical about a jazz musician that features almost no jazz music. The film opens with a protagonist declaring he's going to save jazz, and then studiously avoids playing jazz, opting instead for comfortable Broadway-style show tunes that stick in viewer's heads and make for a good soundtrack. The jazz we hear comprises 1) a 10-second segment (it sounded to me like Thelonius Monk) that Sebastian obsessively repeats in his car on an L.A. Freeway, 2) an excerpt of Monk's Japanese Folk Song that Sebastian practices in his apartment, 3) a smattering of big-band style performances that never seem to last more than a minute. Broadway show tunes probably have their origins in jazz, but they are hardly the "dying" musical form that Sebastian wants to rescue.The film shows us pictures of John Coltrane, tosses out references to Miles Davis, and teaches us why Charlie Parker was nicknamed Bird, but carefully protects us hearing any of the music that made them famous. We're back to the proverbial film that takes place in Tanzania that doesn't let any Tanzanians on camera apart from the stray waiter or a chauffeur.

I could also do without the "jazz snob" meme. Contemporary jazz musicians are considerably more open-minded than Sebastian's righteous condescension would have us believe. Almost none listen exclusively to jazz, and many voluntarily choose to make pop-influenced music. Miles, possibly the world's best-known jazz musician, never cared when people accused him of "selling out" because he used electric guitars or synthesizers. Sebastian's eyeball-rolling "Fine, I'll just do it for the money" approach seems much more the exception than the rule among jazz musicians. That didn't stop The Guardian from turning Sebastian's jazz snobbery into a meme for all tiresome men who force their tastes on the women they date. Calling out this exoticized vision of musical purism might earn me the moniker of a jazz snob. I actually think it's more like reminding people that the average citizen of a developing country is more likely to own a cell phone and have a Facebook account than to live in a jungle hut and hunt wild animals.

Perhaps my final observation is a bit of a unnecessary swipe, but the fact is that Sebastian would probably hate most modern jazz venues. That's because they increasingly play host to musical genres that do a better job paying the bills - pop, soul, R&B. I'm not sure how Sebastian would feel about this, but I certainly know how I do: I don't give a toss. If I have a chance to see the music I like, support the artists that make it and potentially shake their hands at the end of a show, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if the venue on the next night puts on anything from a Justin Bieber wannabe to a Selena Gomez lip-syncher.

That's all about La La Land and jazz.

Somehow the film seemed oddly flat to me, as if I were constantly waiting for it to reach out and grab me. But I appreciate the you-can't-have-it-all ending that is less common than the happily-ever-after saga we were set up for. Anything that breaks the traditional Hollywood mold gets points for that alone.

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