As someone who finds La La Land bold, daring and deserving of all its critical and financial success, I can also admit that there are a few elements that warrant closer examination, particularly regarding its portrayal of jazz, romance and people of color. In fact, the better a work of art is, the more we must dissect it, because now we're not just measuring Rotten Tomatoes popularity or boffo box office, we're assessing its proper place in our cultural canon.
"The previous generation of Black jazz musicians played the popular music of the day. Despite the greater contributions of Black musicians to the idiom, that generation’s collaborations with whites were seldom on Black terms. Bebop staked out a different kind of intellectual and racial territory.
"High Bebop lived in the penthouses of intellectual and physical achievement while still keeping one foot in the ghetto. This tension is sublime, and it may be why Bird and Bud didn’t care if you understood their excellence or not. They provided the excellence; it was up to you to find your way. The integrity of High Bebop is unimpeachable.
- Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus
I never thought the film painted Keith's character as a sellout. Seb thought of him that way, but that's his flaw, just like the earlier scene where he talks too much and too enthusiastically about what he thinks jazz is. You are supposed to realize that Seb's a bit too intense - I think it was on an NPR Fresh Air interview with Chazelle where I heard him discuss that yeah, he feels he himself used to be a bit too rigid and insistent in his artistic ideas and he's using that to form the character of Sebastian.
Keith comes off on screen as a MOR R&B act with some jazz inflections in the mix and a flashy backing band that's hitting its notes to pay the rent, not to advance an aesthetic.
I think it falls somewhere in the middle. It's worthwhile both to innovate and write popular music, but also to keep the old ways alive. You should know which one you're good at, and not try to be something you aren't. Obviously Chezelle prefers more traditional jazz but I think he does a good job advocating for Keith's side, too, and showing that both things can be worthwhile. We want both the romantic moody jazz bars and the fun big band crowds.
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