Damien Chazelle – Dream Maker
This post was written in January 2017
With La La Land currently dominating the movie theatres, wowing critics for the past months and mumblings of award buzz surrounding it, everyone is probably getting a little tired of the words being written about it. An element that makes the La La Land success story so extraordinary is its director. All this commotion from the film industry would be expected from a big-name director, but La La Land’s director, Damien Chazelle, is not a household name nor is he quietly prolific. For La La Land is only his second feature film. Watching the film with that in mind, what this 32-year-old has achieved is quite extraordinary, crafting a film that not only feels like it comes from another era way before his time, but to be able to put so much stuff up on the screen in such a controlled manner that overwhelms the audience to just the right degree suggests a filmmaker with technical prowess far beyond his years.
When the camera panned up across the magical land of La La and “The End” appeared on the screen, I was not only left with the same joy many others have already talked about (with some caveats, we will get to,) but also wanting to return to Chazelle’s previous film, a film whose ending left a far greater impression, with its adrenaline rush of a finale. The differences between these two films is obvious to many, but watching Whiplash again, it struck me just how much the films share a strong running theme. Mia, Sebastian and Andrew all are working towards their dreams, dreams that dominate their lives to such a degree that everything around them must suffer. The partnership of Mia and Sebastian, and Andrew and Fletcher proves destructive for each of them.
As the films open and we are introduced to our leads, Mia and Andrew are in similar places. They are desperate to reach their dreams. They both surround themselves with the legends of their chosen profession, Mia serving them at the film studio’s coffee shop, Andrew listening to Buddy Rich albums, both covering their sanctuaries in posters. Nothing less than perfection will be enough for either of them. Sebastian begins the film further along this path of a destructive dream, rejecting the world of background jazz music, despising those that can’t see why he loves what he loves. There is sense of misanthropy about him, hating all those around him, rejecting them as he sees them rejecting him. Even Mia must initially face his abuse on the road and his blanking of her in the bar, unable to believe that anyone could possibly understand his music or see the beauty within it. Eventually, he does throw away this ambition and begins playing “bad” 80s music at glamorous parties. He still hates what he is doing, but he can hide himself behind out dated sunglasses and be left to his loathing of it all by himself.
Andrew takes a path that is very similar throughout the early stages of Whiplash. Initially, his brief glimpses of success give him a confidence in all of his life, notably with the beginnings of a relationship with the girl he regularly sees working at his local cinema, Nicole. However, much like Andrew’s thoughts for her himself, the film gives very little time to her, banishing her to mainly texts and phone calls following a single date scene. That strive to get better and better at drumming, egged on by the tyrannical Fletcher’s continual baiting, leaves Andrew colder to the rest of the world, as he increasingly sees nothing is good enough for him. Even his family get berated by him, simply because they understand the world of college Football more than they do the world of college jazz bands. Much like Sebastian, Andrew’s passion for the niche genre of jazz is driving him away from those that care for him and isolating him from all around. The film does not deliver this with great subtlety, but it delivers it with a relentless power, with his battles outside the jazz band becoming increasingly similar to his battles within the band with his teacher, Fletcher.
La La Land takes a different approach. With its focus being on a relationship, echoing the seasons of the year (a motif that does also feature in Whiplash, albeit to a far lesser degree,) there is a flow to the tale that is not present in the more focused descent of Chazelle’s debut film. As is traditional, the couple begin hating each other, but unable to think of anything else. Once we move into them becoming an item and “Spring” begins, there is a positivity to the relationship, where the two dreamers are able to give each other encouragement and support. The film ultimately has to cause tension between these two though and it is an element that is less successful. When Sebastian does find some success in a band, which he hopes will help him fund his dream of opening a jazz club, his global travels and commitments to his band members no doubt would cause issues for any relationship, but Mia’s lack of understanding of this comes across at times as selfish. For her, his success often appears to be a knife into her continual struggles. It leaves us asking the question as to whether, roles reversed, Sebastian would have struggled with providing support to her (one that the final dream sequence seems to resoundingly answer with a no.) Eventually, Mia does have one failure too many and decides to leave LA and Sebastian, to return to her old comfortable, normal suburban life.
Andrew too, must leave his dream behind for a spell. Physically attacking Fletcher during a competition, he is thrown out of his school. He also, reluctantly, returns this favour, by joining a lawsuit against Fletcher, resulting in his dismissal as a teacher. As with Mia, Andrew returns to a life of what he must see as normal mediocrity. It is only a chance encounter with Fletcher and conversation in which he tries to justify his teaching methods, that gives him his second shot at greatness. And so begins one of the most astonishing finales to a film. During La La Land, there is a sequence in which Sebastian describes the battle between jazz musicians during a performance, the saxophone player goes off playing his own thing, then the pianist retorts with his own spin, the saxophone player battles back. Whiplash’s final 15 minutes or so is a full dramatization of this. Imagine Michael Bay robots hitting each other, just with more drumming. The escalation of Andrew’s performance is an exhilarating watch, with him becoming increasingly more and more in control of not just his own performance, but of those around him. By the end, he is virtually conducting the band himself. Whereas before Fletcher would regular say “Not quite my tempo” to Andrew, it becomes increasingly the case that Fletcher has to work on Andrew’s tempo. And yet despite the power and energy given of Andrew’s performance, as well as his command of the band, the stage and his former teacher, the brilliance of the finale is the lack of satisfaction it gives the audience. Bar a brief, brilliant moment in which Andrew hits his cymbals and it smacks Fletcher in the face, the nasty, manipulative, bullying Fletcher doesn’t get his comeuppance. Instead, some will be left wondering if he gets what he wanted all along; to create his own Charlie Parker. There is another, more important question that the film proposes though, has Fletcher created another Fletcher? Throughout the film, Andrew becomes increasingly nasty in his pursuit of perfection, talking down to those around him. He is becoming more and more of a bully, and it seems unlikely that this great performance is going to make him change those ways. We have already watched him reject his father’s offer of comfort upon his initial humiliation at the start of his performance. It is fortunate that the jazz band he plays with are able to perform brilliantly too, as we are left wondering what if any of them played at not quite Andrew’s tempo?
La La Land’s ending has been described as melancholic by many, but it is far more upbeat about the pursuit of dreams than Whiplash’s ending and certainly does not leave us with as much ambiguity. Although apart, Mia and Sebastian have finally managed to find their dreams; she a famous actress and he opening his jazz club. As with Whiplash, the final moments begin with a chance encounter by our couple, in a jazz club, Seb’s. Mia has moved on and started a family, whilst Sebastian appears to be alone. Through his music, they live out another dream, one where their relationship was different and they didn’t split apart. They danced through their life together, having a family. She gave a great performance in a film, but it never went beyond that. They ended up at the same club watching some other jazz performance, they are holding each other with a passion like their relationship has only just begun. And then it snaps back to reality, Mia is making no physical contact with her husband and there is an even greater distance between her and Sebastian, all the way up on the stage by his piano. She begins to leave with her husband, but she catches Seb’s eye. They smile to each other a give a brief nod, as if to say “I’m okay”, before continuing with their lives.
Neither Mia nor Sebastian have been destroyed by their dreams in the way Andrew has. They may not have been together and they may have missed out on a great life together, but it seems what they have without each other is pretty good too. They both went for their dreams and achieved them, with the support of each other. Their relationship formed a part of their journey obtain their goals and they were unlikely to have made it without each other’s support. We know that ultimately the relationship was positive. With Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship, it seems unlikely that many would come out of the film considering they had a positive influence on each other. Fletcher’s attempts to weed out those that didn’t have the drive for greatness by belittling and humiliating them into action may have made at least one great performance, but it was clearly not worth the cost of the many destroyed dreams, the damaged young adults and at least one suicide.
It seems unlikely Andrew and Fletcher would ever acknowledge each other with that same smile.