The Chiastic Tragedy of La La Land

Is it possible to hear one melody with two different harmonies at the same time? It seems it is in “La La Land,” if by “hearing” we mean that you yourself are supplying the harmonies in your mind, and no one is playing them in reality.

I admit this is a bit dizzying, but I can demonstrate that this is happening. Take the famous “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” by Justin Hurwitz, as you first hear it being played by Ryan Gosling’s character in the restaurant.

mia and sebastian's theme with chords

Mia & Sebastian’s wistful but happy melody

As my annotation says, the theme is wistful, yes, but it’s happy all the same. We become accustomed to hearing this theme with these harmonies underneath it, because it is used with daring regularity throughout the movie, and without fail it’s associated with Mia & Sebastian’s romance. In the following clip, for instance.

But here is the curious thing. Hurwitz, either by luck or ingenuity, has embedded in this theme a potential to be heard as both tragic and romantic, as is demonstrated in the ending scene where Sebastian plays the love theme without his left hand.

Mia and Sebastian's theme, right hand alone
Mia & Sebastian’s theme, but now sad

When we hear Hurwitz’s melody without its accompanying harmonies, it becomes unambiguously tragic. This tragedy is made poignant because of the memory in our minds of a happier harmonic interpretation. Why is the melody so different in the absence of any harmony?

When the melody is heard by itself, it has an implied harmony of F# minor. And, yes, for the average audience of “La La Land”, minor means sad. This can be seen if we do a generative analysis of melody, peeling back some of the harmonic underlay. (a) below is the original melody, (b) highlights the notes of the melody that outline an F# minor chord (on accented beats for the most part), (c) shows those notes isolated, and (d) makes them into a chord progression.

Yes, Schenker is rolling over in his grave, I don't care, be quiet
Yes, Schenker is rolling over in his grave, I don’t care, be quiet

This is a canny move on Hurwitz’s part. He has introduced this melody to you many times with A major harmonies underneath it. When your ear hears the melody without any harmonies, it will assume the ones in (d). But Hurwitz has put this melody, without chords, at the end of the movie, so we have built up enough context that we can hear it with (d) harmonies but remember it with the old ones. They are both there. There is a powerful sense of the sad, minor (d) harmony, because that is the salient interpretation. But there is a wistful memory of the earlier harmonies, because we have become so used to hearing it with the major tonality.

And what could be a better musical representation of nostalgia? What was a source of sweetness, removed from its context, becomes tragic; yet it is the very fact that we can remember how it sounded as a happier melody that makes it so tragic. It is a musical twisting-of-the-knife.

And it is a metaphor for the rest of this essay, which is about the story of “La La Land”, Damien Chazelle’s upbeat and mass-appealing veneer over the same story he told in his darker “Whiplash.” Both stories are about jazz, about selling out, about the celibacy of the artist, about the struggle of artists to justify themselves to society and their families.

Damien Chazelle’s worldview is a grim fork in the road for the artist: you can live in solitude, an abused victim of your artistic muses, hoping to achieve greatness, or you and your dreams can sell out in pursuit of wealth and commercial success. Just for the sake of ease, I’ll refer to Chazelle’s categories as romanticism (follow your dreams, don’t sell out the art) and capitalism (art needs mass appeal to survive, you have to make a living).

Mia and Sebastian are twin chiasms in mirror image. Sebastian flirts with commercial success but returns to his artistic ideals, whereas Mia flirts with artistic ideals but returns to her realization of commercial success. Their relationship can exist only in the moments of intersection when they are crossing between romanticism and capitalism. 

Their lines are color coordinated with their onscreen outfits; these details make my blog great
Their lines are color coordinated with their onscreen outfits; these details make my blog great

This is illustrated in two of the film’s narratives. Keith, who wants to pop-ify Sebastian’s pure jazz sound, makes what seems to me to be a sound argument against Sebastian’s aesthetic philosophy: 

But you say you want to save jazz. How are you going to save jazz if no one’s listening? Jazz wouldn’t exist if people hadn’t gotten tired of what they were listening to before. I mean, do you really think a bunch of ninety-year-olds in a basement is the future of the form? Traditionalists whined when Kenny Clarke started dropping bombs. If traditionalists had their way, we’d still be playing Dixieland.

But at this point Mia has swapped places with Sebastian and is now the play-writing acolyte at the altar of pure art. She refreshes Sebastian on the exacting demands made on them by Personal Authenticity and Autonomous Art:

Mia. It matters if you’re going to give up your dream to be on the road for years. Sebastian. Do you like the music I’m playing? Mia. Yes. I do. I just didn’t think you did. …Sebastian. This is what you wanted from me. Mia. To be in this band? Sebastian. To have a steady job. Mia. Yes, I wanted you to have a job so you could take care of yourself and start your club.

The other illustration is the converse moment, Mia’s audition and acting breakthrough. It’s her turn to sell out. How she does it is the most insightful part of Chazelle’s storytelling. She sings about her aunt, a woman who followed her gut, lived life with abandon, threw caution to the wind, seized the day with a little madness. Yet these are the very things that Mia will refuse to do with Sebastian once her career gets off the ground. This is what the kids these days call a “performative contradiction,” and it’s a glorious one. By feigning authenticity, by narrating, acting, performing the artistic lifestyle, Mia obviates her need to commit to art the way Sebastian does. There is a bit of Chazelle himself in Mia: obsessed with jazz, fascinated by the lifestyle of the artist committed to no commercial gain beyond the art itself—and using that narrative to make lots of money in Hollywood.

Of course I don’t mean to imply that I agree with any of this drivel about commitment to art versus the wickedness of commercial gain and so forth. I agree with this LA Times critic that such thinking is wrong-headed, but I don’t agree with him that it is outmoded or old-fashioned. The opposite is true. Chazelle has put his finger on something. I struggle to bring to mind musicians who don’t evince Sebastian’s attitude or music consumers who don’t think along Mia’s lines—off the top of my head, I am reminded of Lady Gaga’s recent Netflix documentary when she talks about her relationships with boyfriends and producers. Or similar themes in the Tchaikovsky Competition documentaries from the 90s, those glorious panegyrics to the abusive tendencies of Classical music.

The historian in me is compelled to ask, where does this all come from? No doubt the scholarly literature on that is longer than my entire Goodreads. But the attitude reminds me of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. It is an early and concise exploration of many of these themes, and its author is the archetypal suffering artist. Found among Beethoven’s effects upon his death, it’s a personal expression of grief and despair about his calling as an artist and his affliction of deafness. His contemporaries might have accused Beethoven, like we might Sebastian, of being a douche-bag—like that moment when Sebastian bumps past Mia—of being “hostile stubborn or Misanthropic” in Beethoven’s words. But he insists that that’s not a fair portrayal.

Born with a fiery Lively Temperament susceptible even to the Diversions of Society, I soon had to keep to myself, pass my life in solitude, if I attempted from time to time to rise above all this, o how harshly then was I repulsed by the doubly sad Experience of my bad Hearing… Such Happenings brought me close to Despair; I was not far from ending my own life—only Art, only art held me back. …I am resigned—to be forced already in my 28th year to become a Philosopher is not easy, and harder for an Artist than for anyone else.

Chazelle’s stories about art are stories that end in isolation and loneliness. When compared with “Whiplash”, “La La Land” is made the more effective because there is that tantalizing hope, the dream of la la land in Mia’s final fantasy, that the artist is not in solitude, that the melody can have the harmony along with it.

Things I mentioned:

Ludwig van Beethoven, “Heiligenstadt Testament”, in Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music In the Western World: A History In Documents.