Rhona Reed delves into ‘La La Land’ and the controversial topic of modern-day jazz. Should it be an experimental reinvention, or purely replicate the past?
If La La Land proves anything – beyond the fact that Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is genius – it is that we cannot frown at today’s reinterpretations of classic trends.
Purchasing a remastered vinyl or an overpriced imitation of a vintage dress may make many purists grimace. Yet, every season reinvents a classic trend from past decades. Do we really want to just repeat history, rather than alter it? The predicted revival of 2017 is the controversial kitten heel and, while you may scorn now, this is the perfect opportunity to see how our reinvention of a retro trend may actually make a dated style fashionable and enjoyable.
The box office hit musical La La Land epitomises today’s current trends being heavily inspired by the vintage. It can be traced in their style of parties, clothes, and even their cars. The opening scene, set to the high-spirited song ‘Another Day of Sun’, parades dated cars while Mia drives a Toyota Prius. Sebastian’s convertible Buick Riviera has far more character and individuality, exemplified in the comical scene of Sebastian trying to identify which Prius key belongs to Mia at the end of a party. Through the immediate foreshadowing of him listening to cassettes in traffic, we can already tell that Sebastian is a true traditionalist.
Beyond the romantic storyline and stunning visuals, what really captivated me was the insistence on keeping jazz alive. Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian is determined to remain true to jazz’s roots, meticulously covering jazz songs on his piano without the slightest room for alteration. Meanwhile, John Legend’s character Keith insists the only way such an old trend can be heartily received in the modern-day is through reinvention: “How you gonna save jazz if no-one’s listening?” His song ‘Start a Fire’ is a hard-hitting nod to how modern music should be inspired by jazz, yet not afraid to stray from a traditional framework.
Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack to La La Land is doused in jazz influence, yet prioritises being catchy and enhancing. It leaps between aspects of jazz and classical piano, and it is this freedom from genre boundaries that all music should encapsulate. The result is a nostalgic soundtrack with songs that even manage to foreshadow the romantic story arch of the movie.
Jamie Cullum is a great example of a modern jazz musician who is not afraid to break the mould. As a regular listener to his jazz show (BBC Radio 2, Tuesdays 7-8 PM), he proves tremendously knowledgeable about the history of jazz, and is influenced by many of its founding mothers and fathers. His skill at the piano is inspiring and versatile, with innovative techniques of hitting a piano as a drum and reaching into the lid to mute strings. He has performed at the BBC Proms in both 2010 and 2016, inevitably in front of many music purists. He played stunning renditions of ‘If I Ruled The World’ and ‘You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You’. However, he also covered modern artists such as The Weeknd and Rihanna, and made the audience jump to his original track ‘Mixtape’. Further great examples of modern musicians with great jazz influence include The Neil Cowley Trio (contemporary jazz), Gregory Porter (blues, soul), and Ben Folds (jazz fusion).
La La Land illustrates the essential idea that nostalgia is a beautiful emotion that should not be confined. But moving on and reinventing the past should definitely not be frowned upon. ‘City of Stars’ appears to have gathered the greatest overall acclaim in the musical’s soundtrack. It is not overtly jazzy, but evokes a sense of nostalgia and simplicity that truly epitomises how we should treat the past.
Let Ryan Gosling’s three dedicated months of learning to play the piano for his role inspire you, but think twice before you are swayed by Sebastian’s insistence that the only way you can love jazz is to never stray from the framework.