Whiplash and La La Land: Chazelle’s obsession with ambition

Damien Chazelle, a young movie director who studied at Harvard University and made his first short movie in 2009 (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench“) received many awards for his first movie “Whiplash” (2014) and his very recent “La La Land” (2016).

His two movies gathered widespread praise from critics; while Whiplash depicts a tyrannical music teacher (J.K. Simmons) and his treatment of Andrew, and young musician (Miles Teller), La La Land is a musical set in LA, where a young aspiring actress (Emma Stone) meets Sebastian, a jazz-obsessed musician.

The two movies have striking similarities. Jazz is central to the plot, given that Whiplash’s entire soundtrack is composed of different jazz classics, and the story revolves around Andrew trying to better himself at performing those classics. Jazz also has a major role in La La Land, associated with Sebastian. This struggling musician dreams of opening his own jazz club and idolizes old jazz icons from LA. Music is undeniably present in Chazelle’s universe (his 2009 short movie also boasts spectacular music and dancing scenes), and his two movies are an ode to music, jazz and the skill of mastering an instrument. Take those impressive drum scenes in Whiplash, for example, or Gosling’s moves on the piano in La La Land.

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In Whiplash, a spectacular scene depicts Andrew playing so intensely that he has to immerge his entire bloody hand in a bucket of ice.

Both movies also have a peculiar take on success.

In Whiplash, Andrew is so obsessed with his music and his practice, he becomes blinded by it quickly. He breaks up with his girlfriend to focus on the drums, and ends up alone, abused by his music teacher. The difficulties make him want to push people away, instead of getting closer to them. In the end, the audience and his teachers celebrate and congratulate him, and even though he achieved the success he always wanted, he jeopardized his relationships (as well as his health).

In La La Land, both protagonists have different dreams. Mia balances being a barrista and her auditions, while Sebastian dreams of re-opening a mythical jazz club. As the movie progresses, their relationship struggles through their respective careers; Mia’s one-woman show flops, while Sebastian, who didn’t have a steady income, accepted a contract with a pop band. In the end, the ellipse gives us a glimpse of their life 5 years later. In it, we discover that Mia achieved her dream of being a famous actress, and Sebastian has finally opened his club. Only thing though, they achieved their dreams, but not together. Separately, they went on with their lives. Just like in Whiplash, the romantically-involved characters grew together, shared their dreams, built their ambitions together, but ended up achieving them on their own.

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In order to portray jazz-obsessed Sebastian, Ryan Gosling learnt the piano for 4 months. The takes where we see him play are not edited; Gosling is playing everything.

In his works, Damien Chazelle raises the question: should these characters be obsessed by their careers and dreams to the detriment of their romantic relationships?

At the very end of La La Land, there is a scene when Mia and Sebastian see each other again. What would have happened had they stayed together? Several scenes pass before our eyes; them getting married, having a child. In it, they don’t achieve their dreams of acting nor opening a jazz club. They do achieve their dream of being together though. In reality, without Seb, Mia wouldn’t have gone to the audition that allowed her to break through and become famous. Without Mia, Seb wouldn’t have gotten a steady job, which then allowed him to open his club. Each of them contributed to the ambitions of the other.

In today’s world, where people strives for success, fame and wealth, Chazelle shows the issues that come up, by covering them with aesthetic colors, lively music and endearing characters.

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While the endings may seem bittersweet, they actually challenge the typical “Hollywood” happy endings. In Whiplash, even if Andrew had to overcome emotional and physical abuse he finally gets his great standing ovation, as well as the esteem of his professor. As for La La Land, even if Sebastian and Mia are no longer together, they’ve achieved everything they’ve ever wanted in their life. Hunter Harris sums it up beautifully; “La La Land ultimately is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance. The real romance was with the shimmer of dreams.”.


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