Maybe it’s the fact that, in his debut film, he appears briefly as a jazz drum instructor. Or, it could be the constant name-dropping of jazz legends, via impassioned dialogue, in almost everything he’s directed. Or, there’s also the glaring reality that only one movie or TV show he’s ever helmed hasn’t been about jazz. Basically, if you didn’t know that Damien Chazelle is fond of jazz, well, you haven’t seen anything the Oscar-winning filmmaker has made other than FIRST MAN.
Chazelle doesn’t just like jazz. He wanted to be a jazz drummer himself, with his experiences providing inspiration for his breakout hit WHIPLASH. After moving into filmmaking instead, he wields jazz like Quentin Tarantino wields his love of cinema — if he can work it into one of his projects, he will. Not to criticise his features but, when viewed as a whole, his filmography can resemble PARKS AND RECREATION’s “jazz plus jazz equals jazz” scene. There’s jazz layered over more jazz, with even more thrown in case anyone somehow missed all the other jazz.
After ditching jazz for the moon with FIRST MAN, THE EDDY marks Chazelle’s return to his favourite topic. This time, he co-directs — jumping behind the lens on the first two episodes of the eight-part series — and executive produces. And he really is in familiar territory, with the show not only set around a Parisian jazz club, but also following its musicians, including former pianist turned club co-owner Elliot (Andre Holland). Accordingly, there are plenty of jazz tunes, jazz performances and long discussions about jazz. Jazz is used to celebrate major events, as well as being weaved into the fabric of the characters’ daily lives. But, ranking Chazelle’s directorial work from the jazziest there is to not even jazzy for a second, where does it sit?
WHIPLASH: SO JAZZY IT BLEEDS
In theory, you could swap jazz for a number of other styles of music and WHIPLASH would still work. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) could be determined to become a rock ’n’ roll drummer, for example. And, as long as he had an intense teacher and conductor in the form of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) — with ‘intense’ being the biggest possible understatement there is to describe Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance — he’d still be driven to pursue his dream. He’d still do so, too, while bleeding from his hands, after choosing music over his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and telling her that’s the case, and while sporting visible injuries after a car accident.
But any other genre of music just wouldn’t be Chazelle’s tempo. It wouldn’t suit his story quite as well either, with the seriousness and devotion that jazz inspires fitting perfectly. It’s that seriousness and devotion to jazz, after all, that’s partly behind Chazelle’s decision to make this film (and the short film it’s based on) in the first place. So, it comes as absolutely no surprise that jazz bustles through every frame of WHIPLASH, whether its central Shaffer Conservatory student is practicing, listening, complimenting jazz tunes playing in the background while on a date or performing. And, of course, whether he’s rushing, dragging or being screamed at for both.
GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH: JAZZ > LOVE
WHIPLASH’s love of jazz was hardly unexpected for another reason: Chazelle’s prior film, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, made it very clear where the filmmaker stands on the genre. His first feature, his first musical and a movie that laid some of the groundwork for LA LA LAND (or at least indicated that jazzy musicals were in his blood), the 2009 film follows an aspiring jazz trumpeter (Jason Palmer) and his girlfriend (Desiree Garcia) as their relationship comes to a crossroad.
As it unfurls the titular couple’s story, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH establishes many of Chazelle’s hallmarks. Exuberant scenes filled with playing jazz feature heavily, including in jazz clubs. So do energetic discussions about jazz. In fact, loving jazz is Guy’s defining trait — so much so that, when his new possible love interest, Elena (Sandha Khin), shows no interest in his music, he’s visibly unimpressed. Guy is also a music-adoring dreamer devoting his time to chasing his obsession, a character type Chazelle keeps returning to. And, the film introduces the director’s penchant for calling out anyone who isn’t jazz-obsessed, with the line “he doesn’t even like jazz that much” echoed in similar dialogue in other Chazelle projects.
THE EDDY: JAZZ IS ALL AROUND
THE EDDY doesn’t even reach its halfway mark before the eight-episode limited series features a jazz-fuelled birthday party and a jazz-filled funeral. Jazz soundtracks all major life events, clearly. The Netflix show lives and breathes jazz, as most of its characters do as well — whether by choice, in the case of Andre Holland’s club owner Elliot, his business partner Farid (Tahar Rahim) and the members of their house band (including COLD WAR’S Joanna Kulig as Maja, their lead singer); or, by forced proximity, as seen via Elliot’s teenage daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg) and Farid’s wife Amira (Leïla Bekhti).
What bumps THE EDDY down the jazz-loving rankings, however, is the space it carves out for other things. As well as providing the main setting, the ups and downs of the titular Parisian club and its band serve up ample dramas — but so do Julie’s adolescent angst, Amira’s plight, and the non-jazz aspects of many of the character’s lives. Jazz is always present. Indeed, it’s inescapable. And yet, it isn’t always an overwhelming force. That said, THE EDDY doesn’t skimp on the sights and sounds of jazz, with lively performance scenes an ongoing feature.
LA LA LAND: “DOES SHE LIKE JAZZ?”
When LA LA LAND’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) dismisses whoever his sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) wants to set him up with by asking “does she like jazz?” — and clearly assuming the answer will be no — it’s supposed to garner laughs. Seen in the context of Chazelle’s filmography (with LA LA LAND his third directorial effort following GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH: JAZZ and WHIPLASH), it feels like a knowing nod. But, as often proves the case with the writer/director’s male protagonists, it also perfectly encapsulates where Sebastian’s head is at, where his priorities reside and just how much his beloved genre of music shapes his choices.
In the Oscar-winning musical, there’s never any doubt that jazz means everything to Sebastian. He’s a jazz pianist, he wants to open a jazz bar named after Charlie Parker and he talks about jazz every chance he gets. That’s only half of LA LA LAND’s tale, though, thanks to aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone). When she meets Sebastian, she proclaims to hate jazz — and although she changes her mind, the film is much more concerned with her pursuit of her dream than the fact that she starts liking the music that her boyfriend plays. And, given this vibrant, bittersweet song-and-dance-filled movie belongs to Mia more than Sebastian, that pushes its jazziness down a few notches.
FIRST MAN: NO JAZZ
“Neil loves all kinds of show tunes,” Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) explains over dinner, as her husband — astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) — looks on. How much did Chazelle and FIRST MAN screenwriter Josh Singer wish that they could change that detail to jazz? Of course, it would’ve been far too obvious, especially in a movie about a real-life figure who wasn’t a wannabe jazz musician, didn’t dedicate his life to jazz music, didn’t spend his time mentioning jazz greats in every sentence and doesn’t judge women based on their love of jazz.
Exploring Armstrong’s life in the lead up to the Apollo 11 mission, including that iconic moment when he took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, FIRST MAN couldn’t be less jazzy. While Justin Hurwitz — Chazelle’s college roommate and go-to composer, as well as an Oscar winner for LA LA LAND — provides the score as he has for each of the filmmaker’s features, it isn’t jazz either. Even if you were stretching to find any semblance of or resemblance to jazz, such as in the film’s structure, FIRST MAN’s exacting and visceral retelling of actual events doesn’t fit the loose, experimental, constantly adapting jazzy mould. The movie is still classic Chazelle, given that it once again follows someone chasing their dream and weathering the conflict that it brings; however it also shows that he can tell that tale without jazz (not that he often wants to).