La La Land, Racism, and the Real History of Jazz

(image via Variety)

Hollywood loves few things more than it loves itself. I grew up watching old musicals with my mom, and many of them were super meta: musicals about actors putting on a show. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney headlined a whole host of these films, enshrining the “Show within a Show” trope. My dad put it well, when I auditioned for a play in middle school: “Just don’t think you can solve the world’s problems by putting on a show.”

La La Land may not be trying to solve the world’s problems, but it’s certainly trying to save a few people. It won a stupid number of Oscars and was mistakenly announced as this year’s Best Picture (Moonlight actually received this year’s honor). But for all its adulation, La La Land is currently on the receiving end of accusations of racism. And those accusations are well-founded: as Refinery29 points out, one of the two main plots is about a white manic pixie dream boy saving real jazz from the silly Black sellouts. Ouch.

Is La La Land actually racist? The truth is a bit more complicated.

Spoilers abound below the cut.

La La Land tells the story of two star-crossed lovers trying to make it big in Hollywood. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista struggling to land her first big break in the acting world, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling old school jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club. The movie is a musical, with the feel of Singing in the Rain injected with a taste of The Last Five Years. Mia and Sebastian meet and fall in love, but their career ambitions make staying together impossible. After encouraging each other to chase their dreams, the couple breaks up. At the end of the film we see a “what if” montage. We’re led to believe that if Mia and Sebastian had stayed together, they’d have gotten married and had kids and a white picket fence, but no swanky art careers. Back in “reality”, we see Mia is a famous actress married to an older man. She leaves the kids with a nanny while she and her husband go out on the town. At her husband’s prompting, they stop into a jazz club… owned by Sebastian. Using the name and logo Mia designed, Sebastian is now operating a thriving old school jazz club. Sebastian sees Mia and plays “their song”, they exchange a smile, and Mia leaves with her husband. End Scene.

Leaving Mia’s story aside for another post, when we meet Sebastian, he’s a frustrated nobody with a gig playing a strict set list at a restaurant. He loves improvisational, old-school jazz, and is utterly devoted to the purity of his craft. He mansplains shows Mia how jazz is more than elevator music. Sebastian gets a chance to join his old (Black) friend Keith’s (John Legend) wildly successful fusion jazz band. While he thinks Keith is a sell-out because Keith is willing to play the kind of music his audience likes rather than exactly what he likes, Sebastian wants Mia and her family to think he’s successful, so he signs with them. Mia comes to a show and tells him she’s worried he’s abandoning his dreams. This and other events cause their relationship to deteriorate. Five years later, we catch up with Sebastian, and it seems that he’s used his oodles of money from touring to open his own jazz club to play jazz and to showcase jazz musicians that play the kind of music he likes.

The most problematic part of Sebastian’s story is that it looks like a white man is trying to save jazz by preserving its old authenticity for a new generation, while modern Black musicians are bastardizing the genre. It’s pretty racist, and ironically, Sebastian doesn’t seem to have ever cracked the spine of a jazz history book.

Jazz is one of the few truly American cultural contributions to the world. It originated in and around New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s quite literally a product of the African slave trade. Slaves, especially from West Africa, brought with them their musical traditions, one of the most famous of which is the “call and response” structure found in jazz. These combined with Negro Spirituals, Gospel music, and blues. With the abolition of slavery, we get minstrel shows, vaudeville, ragtime and Scott Joplin. In the 1910s and 20s, jazz develops with dixieland, swing, and Louis Armstrong. Jazz was never very respectable at this point; it was the music for those outside polite society. In the 1920s and 30s we get further developments, but it’s white musicians like George Gershwin and Benny Goodman that make it “okay” for rich white people to like jazz. Gershwin wrote “folk operas” and scored musicals featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, two of the most famous white actors of all time. Goodman led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands, but it was the swinging big band styles of Black artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie which had more of an impact on the genre. Through the 1940s, Duke Ellington reshaped the genre to the point where he didn’t like to call what he did jazz, just “American Music”.

Here’s where jazz begins to really give us the roots of modern rock music. The 1940s gave us Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, and the rise of bebop. While jazz had been dance music, bebop was meant to be listened to. Musicians played with rhythm and scat in ways that hadn’t been done before. The 1950s sees a resurgence of Dixieland, but also gives us hard bop, modal jazz, and free jazz. The 1960s and 1970s sees a rise in fusion and the birth of funk music. Miles Davis’s monumentally influential album Bitches Brew redefined the genre, injecting atonal sounds, irregular rhythms, and a psychedelic atmosphere. George Clinton’s band Parliament-Funkadelic is a great example of how funk, soul, jazz, and rock combine in the 1970s.

Fast forward to today, and we see the roots of jazz all over the place. It’s almost impossible to find a genre of music that hasn’t been touched in some way by jazz. As you can see, the very nature of jazz is to evolve from generation to generation and artist to artist. Jazz is a fundamentally Black music, but some white artists participate in and contribute to the genre… because they themselves have been influenced by Black artists.

Looking back at La La Land, we can see why so many people think Sebastian is being ridiculous. La La Land is set in the present day. It premiered in late 2016, and seems like it takes place right around the same year. Sebastian is obsessed with the “old style” jazz greats, specifically John Coltrane. Coltrane was a Black musician of the free jazz era (Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are his musical contemporaries). But that means Seb’s idea of pure jazz is stuck in a narrow golden age of the past that he can’t, no matter how hard he tries, truly be part of. He’s trying to resurrect the past when the world passed him by fifty years ago.

The irony is compounded when you look at who is playing the roles. Ryan Gosling is a famous white actor, but no musician. John Legend is an actual Grammy-winning musician. You can see the influence of the jazz musical tradition in his own music.

Legend uses syncopated rhythms, drums, and choirs, and those are just some of the most obvious elements. His music video and his song send a message of love and hope to those who feel like outsiders. And Legend’s character of Keith also shows us this. He reminds Sebastian that jazz is innovative. As Legend comments in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

“I agree with Keith’s speech in the sense that all the ‘greats’ in music or any art form have done something to innovate in the art form, rather than just replicate what’s already happened before,” Legend says. “As much as you can be influenced by the past or have heroes from the past, it’s important to carry that forward and create something new. Any artist that’s been successful, no matter how much they’ve been influenced by other artists, they do something innovative… but I also believe that it’s fine if you’re Sebastian and you just want to have a jazz club and you just want to play the sh– you like. That’s fine too. You’re just not gonna go down as one of the greats. You’re gonna go down as a guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience for people. If you’re not doing anything innovative, you’re not gonna go down as one of the greats.”

The problem with La La Land is that the ending ties the stories up with a nice bow. It jumps a few years into the future and our leads have their dreams totally fulfilled. The fact that Sebastian is totally successful in his career sends the message that he was really right all along, that his views about preserving jazz are true. Both Sebastian and Keith are trying to “save jazz” in different ways: Sebastian by resurrecting the past, Keith by exploring new musical frontiers. Sebastian is validated because he’s able to bring “real jazz” to people so they can appreciate it and love it like he does. It’s easy to forget that Keith is way more successful (and, let’s face it, more musically interesting) than Sebastian, because we never see him again in the movie. If Sebastian and Keith were living in our world, Keith would be the one to truly make an impact on the genre and keep jazz alive for a new generation. Sebastian’s club might be a cool local gimmick, but it’s unlikely that it’d survive if its niche crowd moves on.

It might be that the movie wasn’t trying to send a message about the right way to save jazz. Jazz, after all, clearly doesn’t need saving. Juxtaposed with Mia’s storyline, we see a broader plot about two people trying to achieve their dreams, and helping one another succeed. We assume Keith gets to live his dreams, too. But none of this changes the imagery of the film. The fact that La La Land ends up trying to tell us that Ryan Gosling knows more about jazz than John Legend is ridiculous. Near the end of the film, when an older Mia visits Sebastian’s club, it’s a group of Black musicians who are playing, before Sebastian (as MC), takes the stage to play Mia’s song. If the movie were more thoughtful, this could have been a way to show Sebastian using his resources to give musicians of color a platform to explore their musical heritage. Instead, it seems like Sebastian’s even more of a White Savior of Jazz than ever. The worst part is, I don’t think any of the powers-that-be behind this film had any idea that there would be problems with diversity or racism. Casting John Legend shows that they probably thought they were doing Black music justice.

La La Land is a highly entertaining homage to the musicals of the fifties and sixties. Emma Stone deserves every bit of her Best Actress Oscar for her performance; the movie is another example of how musicals are a truly timeless genre. But the way the film treats the stories and characters of Sebastian and Keith show that sadly, the powers-that-be know more (and care more) about creating a financially successful wish-fulfillment fantasy film than the actual history of the music its story tries to glorify.


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2 thoughts on “La La Land, Racism, and the Real History of Jazz

  1. Pingback: La La Land and Saving Jazz – Geeking Out about It

  2. Pingback: Dear Evan Hansen: A Tasteless Exercise in Forgiving White Male Mediocrity | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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