First off, there are the obvious physical throwbacks to Whiplash
in La La Land
– or vice versa?
Both Andrew (Miles Teller
, in Whiplash) and Seb (Ryan Gosling
, in La La Land) are jazz purists. Their spaces are cramped, dripping with memorabilia and portraits of their favourite musicians. Andrew wants to become the next Charlie Parker
, perhaps the finest saxophonist the world has ever seen. Seb wants to open a jazz club called ‘Chicken on the Stick,’ in homage to Parker. Eventually, both of them evolve from idolizing icons into developing their own identities – Andrew embraces greatness in the final frame after being pushed by Fletcher (the Oscar-winning JK Simmons), and Seb opens his club and names it Seb’s instead.
Jazz is dying
At one point, towards the end of Whiplash, as Fletcher sits down to have a drink with Andrew in a club, he explains to the boy why he pushes students so hard. There are no two words as harmful as “Good Job” in the English language, he reiterates – saying that if Jo Jones
had never thrown a cymbal at young Parker’s head once, Parker would have been happy with mediocrity
. Fletcher bemoans the state of tutelage around the world, ending with “and people wonder why jazz is dying.” Director Damien Chazelle equips Seb with an extension of this desperate passion. When Seb takes Mia (Emma Stone
) to a jazz club to show her the ‘beauty and chaos and conflict and compromise’ of jazz, he tells her emotionally, “Because it’s dying. It’s dying,” before ending with a flourish, “but not on my watch!” Fletcher wants to end his rant the same way too, but keeps silent, instead devising another horrid plan to push Andrew to the limit in the next scene. The last shot of his approving smile of validation to Andrew literally symbolizes – “but not on my watch,” as he watches his young protégé reach dizzy heights with his drumming solo on stage. Later on, Keith (John Legend
) tells Seb to adapt at their band rehearsal, instead of being a stubborn purist: “You hold on to the past, but jazz is about the future! It’s because of people like you that jazz is dying
Mia first hears Seb play the piano while walking past a club on a warm LA night, disillusioned and annoyed with her life. She hears him play “that” tune from the sidewalk, walks inside, and aches to congratulate him. Similarly, Andrew, after becoming a barista (like Mia was before becoming an actress), hears music from a sidewalk as he walks past a jazz club in New York. He walks in to discover his old nemesis Fletcher playing the piano.
Director Damien Chazelle
uses rapidfire cuts to depict the making of coffee twice in La La Land – once in Mia’s café and once before Seb practices his piano for the first time in the film. His trademark ‘down-to-business’ edit (Tom Cross
, the editor) is seen plenty in Whiplash, but first seen at the theatre refreshment counter where Andrew buys cola and popcorn from, before asking the girl out.
JK Simmons, a jazz-obsessed terror in Whiplash, plays a jazz-hating restaurant manager in La La Land, when we see him firing Seb (not for the first time) on the eve of Christmas for not ‘sticking to the Holiday list of music’. By doing so, Chazelle playfully invokes visions of Fletcher perhaps quitting jazz after being jailed for his antics in Whiplash, serving time, leaving the line and shifting to LA to work in the hospitality business – determined to never hear a strand of pure music again, therefore hiring musicians to play ‘amateur’ music for customers (consumerism) instead of being the raging purist he once was. Fans will argue that Fletcher would rather die than shift identities like this, but the world forces practicality even out of the most stubborn personalities. Of course, this is all imaginary, but very possible.
Mia is Andrew
Emma Stone’s conflicted wannabe-actress character Mia in La La Land at one point quits the line and LA and goes back to live with her parents on the outskirts – bruised and battered by tinsel town. Andrew, too, ends up being provided for by his caring father after his Shaffer Conservatory experience, trying to live a ‘normal, mediocre’ life again. Both of them are jolted back to achieve their destiny of fame and greatness (we’re only left to imagine what might have become of Andrew after his climactic drum solo).
The world is a stage
Both La La Land and Whiplash have momentum-building huge epiphanies on a stage in their final scenes – wordless endings that rely on expressions – Andrew exhausted and smiling at Fletcher’s approval, and Seb nodding in peace and closure to Mia as she leaves his club with her husband. No words. Just live music.