La La Land has garnered seven Golden Globes, a score of 93/100 on Metacritic and a slew of thinkpieces, covering the film’s questionable gender politics, its whitewashed depiction of L.A. (and the city’s music), the way Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian [Seb, for short] presents jazz future and past — or better, all three. All are cogent, necessary critiques of a film that attempts to reinvigorate a model — the golden age Hollywood musical — that initially faded in part because of fatigue for the heteronormative, superficial and often racist fantasies it portrayed. In other words, the exact problems that critics today find in La La Land. Director Damien Chazelle doesn’t challenge any of the norms of that style (save for placing it in a surreally retro version of the present day), and the issues inherent in MGM’s glossy grandeur are even more glaring 60 years after its heyday.
The perverse thing, though, is that those same problematic musicals are actually an essential part of jazz history. Jazz and musicals have been tied since the very first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer (1927), which starred then-megastar Al Jolson as a Jewish immigrant trying to make it as a jazz singer (both in the film and outside of it, Jolson performed in blackface — the film was loosely autobiographical). With that first “talkie” came the first movie-assisted jazz standard, the Irving Berlin-penned “Blue Skies.”