In 2014, Damien Chazelle dazzled the world with his debut feature, Whiplash, the story of a young jazz drummer and his power struggle with a sadistic band director. This year, he treated audiences to his sophomore film, La La Land (Chazelle, 2016) – a movie as different from Whiplash as one can possibly imagine. Besides a difference in tone, their only common elements are music, J.K. Simmons (who has a significantly smaller role this time around – a delightful cameo as Seb’s (Ryan Gosling) one-night boss), and the theme.
If there is one thing Chazelle is trying to say in the movies that he has made so far, it is that art is hard work, and creative successes do not just happen by coincidence. I believe this is one reason why the artistic community has embraced his films with such a vigor. Whiplash and La La Land both orbit around characters whose upward creative prowess is blocked by barriers. For Andrew (Miles Teller), the Whiplash protagonist, it is Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) aggressive coaching, which quickly turns into emotional and verbal abuse. Conversely, in La La Land, Mia (Emma Stone) and Seb (Ryan Gosling) cannot blame their failures on a specific person. Mia desires a full-time acting career, but never gets any further than callbacks, and so must continue working as a barista on a Hollywood lot instead of performing in the movies filmed there. Seb wants to open his own jazz club, but has to settle for artistically unfulfilling piano gigs to make money. Fortunately, La La Land only dips its toes into their misery instead of wallowing in it, kicking off with the high-powered technicolor opening number “Another Day of Sun” before heading off the freeway (where the song takes place, with cast members dancing on top of cars) and into the real world.
La La Land is the movie from 2016 that everyone should see, simply because everyone can see it. It’s artistic without being inaccessible. If nothing else, it establishes Damien Chazelle as a lasting presence in film. His first two features are promising; we will have to see what comes in the future.