First, the 2017 Grammies ignored interesting music (Beyonce; Darcy James Argue https://daily.bandcamp.com/2016/10/12/darcy-james-argue-real-enemies-interview/ ) in favour of bland, unsalted oatmeal Adele. Now the 2017 Academy Awards give six Oscars – though not, thankfully, Best Picture – to whitesplaining and mansplaining, and a discourse that pretends to crusade for jazz but in fact distorts the music’s identity and offers, at best, decent, unexciting music.
There’s now a significant body of analysis dissecting the racism of La La Land (https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/01/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-la-la-land.html?a=1 is a good place to start). But when I finally bought a ticket, it was worse than I expected.
First, sorry, it’s not a great musical even on its own terms. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play, sing and hoof adequately, but their voices are anaemic, and the dancing isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, where their predecessors Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had learned from the astounding Nicholas Brothers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNKRm6H-qOU ) how to make it genuinely so.
The cinematography is nowhere like as magically innovative as that of director Damian Chazelle’s acknowledged inspiration, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Ryan Gosling, we are told, “spent three months learning to play piano” – beat that, Thelonius Monk! – and doesn’t sound or look bad. But, again, he’s not astounding either, and composer/pianist Justin Hurwitz certainly doesn’t create anything that would justify Gosling’s character anointing himself the only great, pure visionary in jazz. There isn’t even a song you can walk out humming – and in a decent pop musical, you should expect at least that.
As for the script, it’s a familiar and tired white saviour narrative (Ryan Gosling whitesplaining to John Legend what jazz really is), infused with Chazelle’s customary sexism (Ryan Gosling mansplaining to Emma Stone what jazz really is) undepinning a romance driven almost exclusively by the solipsism of its two protagonists.
We’ve been here before: Robert de Niro did it in 1977 in New York, New York (with a Liza Minelli who really could sing and hoof), where jazz was also embodied in a white man. However, de Niro did at least pay the obligatory visit to Harlem (dis-embodied cinematically as not-New York) to hear Diahanne Carroll , lent black musicians including Clarence Clemons the stage at his club, and worked with a score that produced a genuine, hummable, hit in its theme song.
The relationship between jazz and other genres is way more interesting right now than purists (whatever they are – because part of jazz’s hipness was always its syncretism and signifying righteously on the popular) versus commercialisers. An intriguing and constantly shifting, expanding conversation is taking place between innovators such as Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington and hip-hop, nu-soul and simply label-refusing artists such as Kendrick Lamar. Chazelle’s discourse, by contrast, (as it did in Whiplash) seems stuck in some ’50s or ’60s America where only lone hipster rebels (but not hipster rebels of colour such as Monk) were acknowledged as misunderstood geniuses, and only Real Men truly got jazz.
Can we be clear about this? Jazz in America began its life as an African-American music, and almost all its great shapers have been African-Americans. Some of them were women: too many vocalists to name, but also instrumentalists such as Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston. It was the music of a community, not simply of a heroic soloist. There have been great and innovative white players – Charlie Haden and Gil Evans are good examples – and they have readily acknowledged their debt to the community that birthed the music. None of the good ones claimed to be the music’s saviours. So why can’t jazz history in the movies get it right? Because it’s never ‘only a movie’ – it always also hawks a way of seeing the world.
Most of the Best Picture nominees tell us more about America than a slight, shallow confection whose whose most lasting contribution to popular culture seems likely to be the suddenly-fashionable colour of Emma Stone’s yellow dress.