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La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative

Damien Chazelle’s tribute to jazz music is a Trojan horse white-savior film in tap shoes

Damien Chazelle likes jazz music. But more than blaming his musical obsession for La La Land, I suppose I can blame Carl Van Vechten. It is, after all, Van Vechten's 1926 novel Nigger Heaven that fueled white interest in the Harlem Renaissance and led to the gentrification of the neighborhood’s nightclubs and brownstones. White interest in Harlem and jazz music became widespread and likely indirectly led to Chazelle’s father’s interest in jazz. After a November screening of La La Land, Chazelle regaled a crowd at the Chateau Marmont with a story about how his father influenced his love for the genre: “He was a jazz obsessive and made sure that I listened to it. ... I love jazz and I grew up playing jazz drums, so it’s always been the music I’ve felt most connected to.”

Chazelle’s first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, stars a jazz trumpeter. His second film, Whiplash, stars Miles Teller as an ambitious drummer who’s obsessed with jazz. His third, La La Land, stars Ryan Gosling as a man who wants to resuscitate jazz music in Los Angeles like it’s Bessie Smith slowly gasping her last breaths outside a Mississippi “whites only” hospital. Gosling isn’t just obsessed with jazz, he’s convinced that the genre is on its last legs and it’s his sole purpose in life to restore it to glory.

The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling's character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.

Gosling and Emma Stone’s love story begins with her admiration of his piano skills, which leads to Gosling introducing her to real jazz music, not that Muzak that she hears in elevators on the way to her auditions in Hollywood. This courtship takes them to a jazz club where Stone and Gosling dance to the inviting strumming of neo-noir jazz strings. Inexplicably, the black people in the nightclub are absolutely mesmerized by Gosling and Stone’s jitterbugging. Gosling is even approached by John Legend, portraying a jazz musician with a very successful band who begs him to join because no one is as gifted at tickling the ivories as Gosling and his pearly white hands.

If this sounds exceptionally nitpicky, my gripe certainly isn’t eating me alive in a season populated by such great films as Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences. But you should also know that La La Land opens with a stunning and visually masterful dance sequence sung by an incredibly diverse group of Los Angeles denizens — but after the song concludes, we immediately cut to Stone in her car on the way to an audition and her love story with Gosling begins when he honks his horn at her on the freeway. Those people of color who gave it their all in the opening sequence, perhaps to remind Oscar voters of that Hamilton musical they love so much, are quickly whisked away so the Caucasian sing-along can begin. It’s hard to be upset when the whiplash (yeah, whiplash) is so immediate. Frankly, it’s fucking hilarious.

At one point in the film, Gosling grouses over the fact that no one understands what real jazz music is and that he’d feel like a sellout playing in Legend’s band. He understands so much that he doesn’t bother to pay his bills; he’d rather play vinyl in his apartment and throw away the increasing stack of mail. Legend tells Gosling that jazz was innovative in its time, so if he refuses to reinvent jazz in the present, then he’s really not living up to the spirit of the genre. Gosling agrees, until he doesn’t, and eventually opens up his own jazz club that’s wildly successful and gains him a black apprentice who’s pretty good on the piano himself, but not too good, otherwise he’d own Gosling’s club himself! The nightclub audience laughs at this joke, but in the film audience, it lands with a thud, because you know what? If you’re gonna make a film about an artist staying true to the roots of jazz against the odds and against modern reinventions of the genre (from white musicians like, say, Mayer Hawthorne), you'd think that artist would be black.

Chazelle’s aforementioned first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, actually stars a black man (Jason Palmer) and a Latina woman (Desiree Garcia). But that was the debut indie film of a Harvard graduate, not a studio film with a $30 million budget. Why tell the story more authentically when you can just try to recreate Gosling and Stone’s film chemistry (presumably from Crazy, Stupid, Love and not the flop Gangster Squad)? According to Variety, Chazelle spoke to Michael B. Jordan about portraying Gosling’s role at one point, but that possibility imagines Lionsgate either producing an Oscar-contending film about two black people struggling through the world of jazz music rather than slavery or Jordan courting a white actress for a modern update of Save the Last Dance. Both scenarios seem implausible. An advertisement for Van Vechten’s 1926 novel in The New Yorker once asked, “Why go to Harlem cabarets when you can read Nigger Heaven?” Perhaps now you could just watch La La Land.