Damien Chazelle makes movies about people who care — a lot, maybe too much — about jazz. You’d think that’d make the 31-year-old writer-director of Whiplash and La La Land something of a beacon to other jazz lovers. Yet while the latter film is being touted as an Oscar front runner, some writers have pointed to what they see as Chazelle’s clichéd and narrow view of jazz, especially as espoused by Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian. (For what it’s worth, La La Land’s charming soundtrack draws far more from mid-20th-century musicals than it does from Miles Davis.) All of which means that Chazelle finds himself in the curious position of trying to stoke popular passion for a genre while simultaneously drawing criticism for his films’ attitudes toward that same style of music.
Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, Chazelle talked about the relationship between his films and jazz, the challenge of overcoming nostalgia, and why jazz lost its popularity.
La La Land is full of allusions to classic jazz, things like nods to John Coltrane and Harold Land album covers and famous jazz clubs. Even the movie’s promotional posters are modeled after jazz album covers of the 1950s and 1960s. What are some reasons for these allusions other than other than providing a hit of nostalgia?
There’s the personal reason and then the intellectual reason. On a personal level jazz is important, has always been important, and will always be important to me. I grew up playing it and having it in the household. So the allusions are there for that reason, because the music matters to me. As far as the intellectual reason, there was something about the idea of jazz and it’s connection to the Hollywood musical — a lot of my favorite old Hollywood musicals, and musicals from the French New Wave, have a relationship with jazz. It’s not completely one-to-one, the music in those movies isn’t strictly jazz, if you wanted to nitpick. And yet the music is absolutely based in a jazz vernacular. It’s just dressed up with strings and European-style orchestration. So I liked the idea of trying to get at the idea of jazz being at the root of the musical.
And then stressing these musical connections through visual allusions?
Yeah. You know, when musicals first began, jazz was the popular art form of America. So these two forms had sort of a conjoined birth. I just wanted to get at that a little bit. And also, if we’re talking the specifics of the movie, then we should also talk about Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, who has a stubborn relationship with jazz and the past, and it’s a relationship that mirrors the movie’s relationship with the past. In some ways it’s my own relationship with the past and with jazz, too. As much as I may want to update things and be contemporary, I can’t pretend I don’t have a deep reverence for the history of that music.
John Legend’s character in the movie, a successful musician who stopped playing “pure” jazz, occupies a tough position. He’s trying to tempt Sebastian into giving up his artistic dreams by playing a commercially friendly style of jazz. Yet you clearly made an effort to depict him sympathetically. Was he a hard character to calibrate?
I wanted to thread the needle with that character. The reason why I wanted to cast John Legend was related to what you just described. I wanted to cast a real musician who could kind of bring an authenticity to the part that would keep it from just being a simple plot device. I also wanted someone who had enough presence, charisma, charm, and weight to persuade Sebastian to do something that goes against his own impulses. And there’s something about John — simultaneously he has this kind of slick charisma and a warm humanity.
His character also voices an argument that when you get too invested in an art form’s past, it becomes almost impossible to bring something new to it.
Yeah, John’s character has a vision of art that I think is hard to argue with. Which is this idea that — and you can certainly argue with the merit of the music he plays in the film —but this idea that if art doesn’t keep progressing, it dies. As soon an art form becomes encased in amber, then it stops being an art form.
Isn’t part of the charm of La La Land that it does put things in this sort of amber glow? Nostalgia is baked into the movie.
Well, basically my own attempts at trying to balance nostalgia and modernity would be even another reason that I liked the idea of jazz being a major part of the story line. I understand the temptation to romanticize jazz. And I know it’s an art form that’s faced questions about its relevance more than a lot of other art forms. The same thing applies to the musical. When you tell people that you’re going to make a musical where people sing and dance and fall in love, there’s the sense that you’re fundamentally going into the past. So instead of deny that, I wanted to try to really highlight elements of the past, certain tropes that I loved in those movies and certain styles of music. The hope was to update those tropes in some way by tying them to modern Los Angeles reality, and to try and find a balance at every moment, so that we’re never completely in the historic or modern reality.
Do you think you were able to find that balance in La La Land?
We tried our best. Maybe I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too, when it comes to nostalgia for jazz and musicals. I understand if people have the criticism that the film is too nostalgic, but I think it’s truly okay to write a love letter to aspects of an art form that you love even if those aspects are 50 years old. It’s okay to reach back into those traditions. But it also behooves you to make a case as to why it’s still relevant and find a way of making it relevant. You want to extend a tradition, not just repeat it. That’s the goal.
Can you explain a bit about the your approach to shooting the jazz that’s played onscreen in both Whiplash and La La Land? The editing is so kinetic.
One thing I’d say was absolutely in common between La La Land and Whiplash and even my very first film Guy and Madeline, was trying to find a way to, for lack of a better way of putting it, film jazz in an exciting way. Sometimes that means emphasizing the physicality of the music, like in Whiplash, and sometimes that means emphasizing the rhythms. The editing and the camera movement both need to swing with the swing of the music.
It’s a very different approach to how you typically see jazz performances filmed.
What I did was partly motivated by was a sense that jazz gets a bad rap, especially from young people today, as a music that’s best listened to while sipping a martini or in the back of a restaurant; this is idea that it’s a very genteel music. To me, that’s so the opposite of the greatest jazz. Jazz was born as rebellious dance music cramped houses in New Orleans. Jazz was an artistic rebellion in the ‘40 with the bebop players. You think of the great jazz drummers — Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Chick Webb — these guys had a bravado and energy that we don’t always associate with jazz anymore. So I’ve wanted to showcase that side of jazz in all my movies. Like I said before, you’re always wanting to balance honoring the past and bringing things up to the present. And that’s a hard balance to achieve, for me or anyone.
You mentioned musicals earlier, and it does seem like every now and then, whether it’s an animated movie, or Rent, or Hamilton, something comes along to rekindle a mass appreciation of that particular musical form. But jazz hasn’t had a truly popular cultural moment since fusion in the ‘70s. Why do you think that is?
It goes back to a debate between artistry and commercialism. At a certain point, jazz was enjoying popular success, but the musicians kept pushing ahead, even when that meant leaving audiences behind. If you look at the history of jazz, you see an art form where the entire arc — something that usually takes hundreds of years for art forms to experience — happened in the course of the 20th century. Jazz is an art that went from A to Z really quickly. And so once you got to the ‘40s and ‘50s you started having this group of musicians who were adamant about pushing the music ahead, and that ultimately meant the end of its mass popularity.
Not to mention the fact you can’t dance to it and it’s hard to sing along to.
Yeah, you can’t really dance to Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. But you look at John Coltrane, you look at Ornette Coleman — you’re talking about some of the greatest artists in the history of music. And they’re almost certainly not populists. I think it’s up to individual listeners to decide how much that fact matters.
This interview has been edited and condensed.