I went to see the movie La La Land today and came with high expectations. Many people apparently liked it, I was intrigued about the possibility of a modern musical (given that in my book the last successful filmed musicals were 50 years ago with West Side Story and The Sound of Music) and ready to see a movie where I didn’t have to wonder when the next person would be brutally murdered or leave the theater feeling that most everyone walking around this planet is a broken, depressed, despairing, angry, wounded person beyond redemption. All the stars seemed to be lined up—including Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
It started off promisingly enough with that wild and wacky American musical fantasy where people break out into song in the most ridiculous circumstance and the screen comes alive with the zany exuberance of great song and dance numbers that leave you whistling out the theater and kicking your heels out in the street. In this case, a traffic jam in L.A. with folks getting out of their cars in a giant choreography, complete with modern touches of skateboards and bicycles and such. Yeah!!
But except for one or two small moments with Ryan and Emma, that was the end of those kind of musical numbers. From there, it was just straight romantic comedy/drama, well-enough done, but not ever worthy of a future second-viewing.
But the thing that really bugged me was tiptoeing to the edge of some serious issues— like the idea (hardly new) that jazz is dead, no one wants to do the work anymore to really listen. Okay, that could be developed if the Ryan Gosling character was actually a good piano player who had something interesting to say musically. But he was terrible! Hey, Hollywood, if you really want to uplift your viewers and entice them into jazz, why not show an actual good player working things out! Hell, I could have convinced Emma Stone that jazz was cool if she understood what to listen for and given some variations on Jingle Bells that would help her hear jazz with new ears.
Okay, I get it. Doug Goodkin or Ryan Gosling? Hollywood, do you need some time to think about this? Ha ha! Well, Harry Connick is not bad looking, has acted some and can play some decent jazz piano. And I bet other pianists could pull off a smaller role. Maybe Ryan’s piano teacher? Why not give a call to Herbie Hancock? Too old, you say? Okay, how about Gerald Clayton? Young, great-looking, fabulous pianist. Check him out.
The fact is Hollywood, you suck at getting serious things like jazz and music education right. Whiplash is an insult to drummers, drum teachers and music educators in general. Bleeding hands, an abusive maniac as a teacher, a kid who will only progress by being beaten up repeatedly by this psychopath who thinks he’s helping him. Mr. Holland’s Opus was a pitiful, pitiful attempt to grant respect to music teachers, failing miserably on two counts. First, it sets up this big drama about Mr. Holland giving up his promising career as a composer to dedicate himself to teaching kids—and then the viewer hears his composition at the end and realizes, “Hey, you made a good choice there!" Secondly, when he’s fired, the parents think the right response is to give a farewell tribute instead of storming City Hall and demanding he be re-instated. No wonder we feel so defeated in this country as we are trained into compliance.
I just saw 28 with Sandra Bullock and could picture anyone who is in AA vomiting at Hollywood’s portrayal. My therapist friends hated Analyze This for the same reason. (Well, at least that was supposed to be a comedy). For coming attractions, there was a movie about the Boston Marathon. My first thought was, “Well, there’s a wholesome theme, showing something about people’s dedication and determination to stretch themselves.” But of course, the real theme was the bombing that took place a few years back. God forbid you get through a movie without an explosion.
I’m not naïve. I know real life makes for pretty boring drama (though Reality TV somehow manages to attract people). I told the folks at my workshop yesterday that just about every day, I witness minor and major miracles in my music room. That room is charged with the vibration of so many extraordinary moments that in my mind, it has earned its stripes as a Sacred Space. Yet in my 42 years of teaching, not a single newspaper or magazine has ever thought to come see a place that is dedicated to children’s health and well-being and has one of the longest continuous Orff programs in North America. But if tomorrow, I threw a xylophone at a kid in anger, I could probably be on national news.
So Hollywood, I know I’m being harsh on you, you have dished out some delicious fantasy this past century and also gotten some things right and elevated discourse with your treatment of serious issues. I guess I’m saying next time you dip your finger into music education or jazz, talk to a music educator or a jazz musician. Believe me, the dramas that unfold every day in my classrooms are sometimes as edge-of-the-seat as anything you can offer. You want explosions? Check out Johnny when he doesn’t get the xylophone he wants! Screaming and tears? We got plenty! Tender moments of great love and compassion? Ditto. We have it all!
Interested? Talk to my agent.