A closer look at what makes Whiplash & La La Land similar in spirit
On the surface, it doesn't look like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land are all that similar. Yes, both deal with jazz (to varying extents), but apart from that, they don’t really register as being cut from the same cloth. But they are, in large part due to Chazelle’s personal journey being reflected in both of these films. Whiplash has been described by many as being Full Metal Jacket with drums and is at times chillingly intense, an unbelievable and oppressive cinematic experience which overwhelms you with its raw power. La La Land has none of the hard-hitting notes of Chazelle’s previous effort and is a gorgeous musical throwback to all those MGM classics which, while not being pure escapism, is certainly a more optimistic film and does not function as a cautionary tale of sorts, unlike Whiplash. The feeling coming out of both films are almost polar opposites and tonally, the films have no common ground. However, they do share some similar themes, both of which stem from Chazelle’s personal journey, which he manages to reflect in these films.
As one can see from the tag-lines above, both films seem to be centred on ‘fools’ who dream of reaching a pinnacle in their ambitions. In each of these two films, writer-director Damien Chazelle explores this concept in different styles and tones. In one, he crafts a riveting and chilling sports drama-ish film about an aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) who is pushed right to the edge and then some by his forceful and maniacal instructor Fletcher, played with breathtaking intensity and ferocity by J.K. Simmons, who deservedly went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In Chazelle’s follow-up La La Land he tells the story of two aspiring dreamers in the arts, Gosling’s Sebastian (another jazz artist) and Mia (an actress), played by Stone. This is a musical, a delightful and sincere throwback to ‘old Hollywood’, although, as Chazelle has repeatedly pointed out, it has more in common with Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Chazelle attempts to deliver a rousing wonder of a film to capture audiences disinterested in what he considers to be one of the purest (and certainly oldest) forms of cinema, the musical. It is safe to say he succeeded with both.
In Whiplash, we follow Andrew Neiman, an ambitious student at Shaffer, a prime destination for aspiring musicians in the States, who idolises jazz icons such as Charlie Parker (whose early death from pneumonia due to heavy heroin use) informs his idea of what great artistic achievement involves-utter devotion and sacrifice. Chazelle explores the cost of such sheer obsession with one’s craft, but why his film is a masterstroke, especially that ending, is because he also implores us to engage in that very discussion on what passion for art can lead to and what that comprises, not shying away from the darkness of it. He isn't dictating to the audience to feel a particular way but instead chooses and aims to invite conversation on a topic which is obviously intensely personal to him. Fletcher, a ridiculously demanding teacher at his school and also the best at what he does, employs strict and strongly unprofessional confrontational techniques to extract greatness out of his students. He wholeheartedly believes in his methods and their credibility, right to the end. Like Neiman, he is obsessed with a goal of grooming (no matter the cost of it) a student to become the next Charlie Parker. He believes, no matter how demanding he can be, it’s all so that people deliver their best. “The worst sentence in the English language is ‘Good job’, he says to Charlie when asked whether pushing someone to the edge can ultimately discourage them.
At the climax of the film, Neiman does deliver a virtuoso performance in front a packed crowd of agents and the who’s who of the music world, in a sequence which is simply a masterclass in editing and filmmaking, but the ambiguity of that finale ponders us to ask-‘At what cost?’ Some believe the film is endorsing Fletcher’s philosophy. I strongly disagree. While Neiman might have delivered a performance for the ages at the end, the film never makes an effort to celebrate that particular way of thinking (Fletcher’s harsh instruction), but just shows us, quite brilliantly, the pitfalls of an extreme obsession with one’s passion and invites us into that discussion. But never does it feel like we are told, in clear terms, what is right and what is wrong.That is no doubt extremely tough as a storyteller to pull off.
Hear it from the great David Fincher on how characters making decisions does not reflect the thesis of the film necessarily.
Yet as a director, I don’t feel you have to identify with your characters as a requirement to make a movie.
Now, we come to La La Land. While this story isn’t quite focussed on the gnawing obsession to achieve greatness as much as it is about aspiring artists (though I suppose it can be thought of in more universal terms) and what they have to sacrifice to fulfil their dreams. Right from the beautiful opening number set on a jam-packed highway overpass where an umbrella of people living in LA start dancing to Another Day of Sun and communicate their hopes and dreams in coming to LA through its wonderful lyrics, Chazelle sets the tone and spirit of the film, which is celebrating those who chase their dreams and how that journey can be rewarding as well as heartbreaking. This journey is what the film essentially is about. It’s not just a love story between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (a wondrous pair for the screen) nor is it only a love letter to Los Angeles and Hollywood, which seemed to be a rallying cry for several of its detractors, late into Oscar season. Damien Chazelle clearly sees himself in these two individuals and he bleeds his personal struggles as he moved to LA to make a career in the arts. Neither Mia or Sebastian are as obsessive as Neiman is but both have high hopes and artistic dreams.
Ultimately, over the course of the film, they fall in love and subsequently go down their separate paths which eventually lead them to achieve what they had hoped for. Which is when we come to another stunning finale which Chazelle pulls on us. The finale to Whiplash is just a pure riveting cinematic experience. But he one-upped himself in La La Land. Through a wonderfully edited and seamlessly scored musical Epilogue sequence, we get to see what would have happened had Mia and Sebastian had a Hollywood ending, where they never broke up, but where more crucially, Mia ended up being Sebastian’s dream, instead of the jazz club he wanted to own. In the real world, where sometimes relationships do not work out, Sebastian and Mia might have rued their missed relationship but both of them achieved artistic fulfilment and in a knowing nod to each other right as the film ends, they acknowledge that very fact. So yes, while La La Land is bittersweet, the film ends with us (and the titular characters) realising that it is heartbreaking that they could not make it work, but the love which comes before is just as crucial as the one we have now. And because they met each other, could they each propel the other to artistic success. The film is maybe a tad less ambiguous in its conclusion than Whiplash but nonetheless, Chazelle leaves the audience to make up their own mind as to what the film is saying in those final moments.
In conclusion, I feel that Chazelle has made two films which tackle pretty much the same idea but from drastically different angles and tones. This shows his prowess as a director and how confident he is in what he is trying to communicate to the audience with his undoubted talent and skill. In my mind, both are brilliant and it would be wildly reductive to compare the two. However, a discussion must be had on what these films are saying and how they say it.