“I should probably tell you something now, to get it out of the way,” cautions Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring present-day actress, to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a stoic young jazz pianist, at a turning point in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical. “I hate jazz.”
You may have a response to this. I do, too. Steady, now. Working as a jazz critic, I’ve met people like Mia. Some of them are my friends. It’s fine. Jazz is about 100 years old, and despite all the humane joy in the music of, say, Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan or Ornette Coleman, it can look from a distance like a guilt-maker: a parent, a teacher, a cudgel. To hate jazz, or to feel alienated by it, might be tied up with issues of race, gender, class, generation, or distrust in the spiritual value of a work of art. Some people really don’t like the sounds of jazz, particularly saxophones and trumpets, and that’s fine, too. I can’t help, because I won’t help, unless you want to talk about it. But this movie wants to connect with you in code, and here is a cold-bloodedly coded moment.
Hatred of jazz—whether sincere or fashionable or reflexive, as a kind of sorry-not-sorry joke—runs strangely deep in American culture. A lot of people understand jazz to be sacred, and this makes it a target for irreverence, because sacrilege is funny—and especially when ritualized. To have a sympathetic fictional character of a big-budget movie say that she hates jazz is a sign that the character is in on a long-running joke.
The joke, years ago, became a trope, and then a screenwriter’s cliché. But it’s worth dwelling on, because between this film and his previous one, Whiplash—the story of a young jazz drummer’s struggle with a sadistic music teacher—Chazelle seems to be investing in the connection between jazz and torment, whether it is the love-hate kind of torment or the hate-hate kind. And these are not insignificant movies: Whiplash managed to go from a Grand Jury Prize win at Sundance to a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards, and Oscar prognosticators have already tapped La La Land as this year’s front-runner.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that a young American actress such as Mia would hate jazz, considering how many leading-women heroes do. She might be aware that a very similar scene occurred in Season 4 of Sex and the City, when Sarah Jessica Parker, as Carrie Bradshaw, says to Ray, a handsome jazz bassist and club owner: “This might be a good time to tell you. I don’t like jazz.”
“Why would you say something like that?” Ray asks. “You can’t follow it and there’s no melody,” Carrie replies. “It’s all over the place.”
Or she might know that eight months ago, in Season 5 of HBO’s Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina Meyer, joked that jazz was “way overrated,” comparing it to democracy and anal sex. And that in Season 4 of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler, as Leslie Knope, visits her local public radio station, where a DJ plays Benny Goodman and Miles Davis simultaneously, and then says to Leslie, off mic, with right-thinking oiliness, “Research shows that our listeners love jazz.” She might know that Lena Dunham claims to hate jazz, too: Dunham said so in 2014 on li.st, the list-making social media platform. Reason No. 1: “It’s impenetrable. Seriously who is making the rules here!?” (Dunham also conjured a site called JazzHate in Season 2 of Girls.) Mia might remember the scene in Jerry Maguire in which a ridiculous young man talks to Tom Cruise with solemnity about a nonexistent Miles Davis–with–John Coltrane recording. “Two masters of freedom,” the ridiculous man intones, “playing at a time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail-lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only American art form: jazz.”
There’s lots more of this out there. Many jazz musicians keep a file of it in their heads. Jazz critics, too. Much of it is funny up to a point. The idea is that jazz is a time-waster, or a narcissist’s con: Certain self-important people—guys, often—won’t like you if you don’t like jazz, and you can’t like jazz if you don’t know jazz, and you can’t know jazz if you haven’t heard it all, every last album by every last performer, and none of it makes sense.
Emma Stone portrays Mia with the temper of a human being rather than a plot vector, so it’s too bad that she is made to voice a cliché, but it’s hard to blame Mia for her skepticism about Sebastian’s interests. Sebastian moves and dances gracefully, like leading men of old; he practices Thelonious Monk keyboard runs at home and knows how to cook. He is a bloody-minded romantic who wants to do things the hard way.
But he is also, and perhaps unintentionally, a creep: a young antiquarian fusspot in 1950s-style suits and spectator shoes with no friends. (In Whiplash, the young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman had no friends, either.) He wants to save jazz by opening a club for “pure jazz”—a laboratory for his ideas, which he claims to know are the right ideas, though we don’t know exactly what they are. (“Pure jazz” probably means acoustic jazz, probably pre-1960, but we aren’t given much specificity.) He holds his car horn down for about five full seconds to express his anger at a texting driver, and he always thinks he knows more than his employers. He becomes upset when his sister sits on a stool he owns that was previously sat upon by Hoagy Carmichael, despite the fact that it’s left out in the open, where one might logically assume it’s for sitting upon. And it bothers him that Mia doesn’t like jazz, though he seems to accept it as a male fate. (Similarly, Andrew Neiman in Whiplash ends his relationship with his girlfriend because he feels she’d never understand how much time he has to give to his drumming; he’s fallen for the con of the narcissist music-teacher.)
Sebastian’s integrity is tested when Keith, played by John Legend, inquires about hiring him for a steady job with a pop-funk band that uses enough chord changes to keep a decent pianist busy through multiple cycles of touring and recording. Keith, the black realist, scolds Sebastian, the white romantic. “How you gonna save jazz if no one’s listening?” Keith says. “You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.” (That is both a realist cliché and a romantic cliché.)
Thinking that it’s what Mia wants, for a time Sebastian accepts the gig, which inconveniences him to play cheeseball solos on a digital synthesizer, with the implausible accompaniment of dancers, to implausibly big audiences. It seems unlikely that a band like this—somewhere between smooth jazz and a light-gauge jam band—could be popular enough to keep dancers on the payroll, but that’s not the point; all that matters is that a jazz pianist is being forced to play the synthesizer. He is a jazz pianist with integrity—we don’t know that much more about him, really—therefore, synthesizers hurt his soul. (This is not a universal truth about jazz pianists with integrity. Ask Robert Glasper or Jason Lindner.)
The film doesn’t deal with race, probably because there aren’t a lot of people of color in it, aside from musicians and others seen in passing. Nor is it any kind of referendum on jazz: The main duet numbers have nothing to do with it. There are many clichés in speech and thought in La La Land, a movie that keeps shifting between high camp and inspirational romance. But a cliché, repeated often enough, can come to seem like a truth. I’ve met a few musicians who could be caricatured into Sebastian. It would be a drag if he became as real and commonplace as the joke about hating jazz.