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Blah, Blah, Bland: Actually it's much worse than that.

David Berger

Full disclosure: I’ve been a professional jazz musician in New York for the past 50 years during which time I have written orchestrations for a number of Broadway shows and have composed several original musical comedy shows.


In The Producers, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, in order to insure a flop Broadway show, choose the worst book they can find and hire the most incompetent director, cast and crew. To their surprise and financial ruin, the audience loves their show, and it is a smash hit. The real-life Hollywood musical version of Mel Brooks’ Broadway fable has just been perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. I just spent an excruciating 2 hours and 7 minutes this afternoon trying to find something positive to say about the current movie La La Land.


I don’t normally review movies, but I was so moved by Fences last week, that I had to say something. Also last week, saxophonist Jeff Lederer posted a scathing rant on Facebook after he saw La La Land. My buddy Steven Bernstein replied, “Nobody cares.” I had to check this out for myself. I honestly went to the theater hoping to like it. Within the first minute, I knew this movie was misconceived and totally incompetent. I’ll try not to get too technical in what went wrong, so that non-musicians and non-show biz people will know what they are getting into.


First of all, there are very few movie musicals that I love. Oh, I like West Side Story, Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Carousel, My Fair Lady and a few others, but whenever I watch them, I can’t help but think of the original Broadway productions, which were infinitely better and included the entire score. Movie musicals don’t have enough music. Why is that?


My absolute favorite movie musical is Gigi. It is sheer perfection. The story, the dialogue, the music, the lyrics, the cinematography, the acting, the singing, the dancing—it’s all as good as good gets. Whenever subsequent producers try to make it into a stage production, it falls short. So before you see La La Land, watch Gigi (I’m sure that you can get it on Netflix), so you will know what great is.


The creators of this movie know nothing about constructing a musical. For one thing, there aren’t nearly enough songs. The action in a musical is supposed to take place in the songs. There is way too much talking in this movie. Finally near the end (or what I thought was the end) of the movie, when the actress does her monologue audition, she sings a song instead of talking. At first, my reaction was: why is she singing? Then I remembered that this movie is a musical. It had been at least a half hour since I heard the previous song.


This is how you construct a musical: you create a plot, and then you look for what scenes can be done in song and/or dance. You want to convey as much of the action as possible in music. That’s why they call it a musical.


La La Land opens with a typical production number. I couldn’t understand half the words because the orchestrations were overwritten (too thick, heavy and distracting with nothing interesting musically—throughout the entire movie) and the mix favored the instruments over the voice.


The most important thing in a musical is the lyrics to the songs. This is how the story should be told. If you can’t understand them, and if they are not clever (both of which were the case in this movie), the audience doesn’t know what’s going on and gets frustrated. I would love to hear Steven Sondheim’s assessment of this feeble attempt at musical comedy. Obviously the creators of this movie never read Sondheim’s books on writing for the theater.


My first reaction when I heard that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were in this movie was, “Can they sing?” Actually, they can’t, and they can’t dance either. In the old days, movie producers would often cast major stars in musicals and have Marni Nixon sing on the soundtrack. Didn’t anyone suggest getting real singers? Gosling only pretends to play the piano (actually mostly electronically simulated gizmos); why not hire a jazz singer to dub his vocals? He is supposed to be a jazz musician, right?


I guess there’s not much you can do to make it look like these two can dance. It probably never occurred to the writer, director and producer that musicals depend on dancing to keep the story moving visually. This movie moved at a snail’s pace. Frankly, I would have left after the opening number, but I wanted to be fair in writing this piece.


Secondly, movies depicting jazz and jazz musicians are almost always written by people who never met a jazz musician in their entire life. They have no idea what we are about, and they don’t know the music. In La La Land, Ryan Gosling is supposed to be a jazz musician who wants to have his own club. He says he loves, Kenny Clarke and Thelonius Monk, but he doesn’t play a note of jazz in the entire movie. It’s all pop schlock.


Jazz musicians tend to have other jazz musicians for friends. This guy doesn’t have any friends except John Legend, who is a pop musician both in real life and his character in the movie. Obviously the composer, director and producer of this movie have no idea what jazz music sounds like—with the exception of a couple of scenes. One is another band in a club (Gosling talks through the whole number ironically saying that people don’t listen to jazz) and the other is a record being played while Gosling argues with his girlfriend over dinner.


Let’s talk about owning a nightclub. This guy is an out of work piano player. Where in hell is he gonna come up with a couple of million dollars to open a jazz club that looks like the one in the movie? Absurd. Equally absurd is the actress girlfriend producing her own 1-woman show. She’s a barista at Starbucks. And why would a major Hollywood casting director come to see her show? Again, absurd. Throughout this movie I felt like my intelligence was being insulted.


If you want to see a movie that depicts jazz musicians as they really are and has real jazz music in it, I’ll recommend these:


Young Man with a Horn. It stars Kirk Douglas. Harry James plays the trumpet solos and Doris Day acts and sings just like she did in real life back then. The story is pretty good except for the corny Hollywood finish, but I can forgive that.


New York, New York. Stars Robert DeNiro as a fictionalized Georgie Auld. Georgie plays DeNiro’s bandleader and supplies all the great tenor sax solos. The road scenes and DeNiro’s character are funny, ridiculous, but real. I’ve been in those bands and known these people. Two things don’t fit: Liza Minelli as a 1940s band singer and Kander and Ebb’s songs. What saves the movie is Ralph Burns’ perfect score. Ralph was there. He knew. The movie opens on VJ day in a nightclub in Times Square with Tommy Dorsey’s band playing Opus One. I was hooked right away. Scorcese got it right.


The Gig. Cleavon Little plays a professional bassist who takes a 2-week gig with an amateur Dixieland band. Warren Vache plays the trumpet player (who knew Warren could act?) and Milt Hinton supplies all the bass playing. The story is exactly how this situation would play out in real life. Some real insight into what it is to be a jazz musician.


Several years ago I wrote some music for two scenes of The Great Debaters, which was directed by Denzel Washington. One of those scenes was a dance at a Black college in 1935. In order to make the scene authentic, I was hired to write the arrangements and produce the pre-recorded track with my big band in New York. I was then flown to Shreveport, Mississippi to coach the band of college kids who lip synched the instrumental parts. I also was on the set to make sure that every little detail of their performance looked authentic. The props man got everyone amazing vintage instruments, and the costume designer created perfect period gowns and suits.


This scene was originally planned to be about 8 minutes, but wound up being maybe 2 minutes in the final cut. All this detail and expense for 2 minutes near the beginning of the movie. You might say that Denzel was being wasteful, but this is the kind of detail that goes into making a work of art. I’m not saying that the perpetrators of La La Land should have hired me to make their film realistic, believable or even good; but they could have hired a jazz musician to tell them what they don’t know. And while they were at it, they could have hired someone who knows something about musical comedy.


The showing that I attended was sold out. There were about 500 people in attendance. To my surprise, no one walked out. Like I said, I would have, if I wasn’t going to write about it. At the end of the movie, about 10 people clapped for a few seconds. I know it’s silly to clap for a movie, since there are no performers present, but it’s pretty hard not to want to applaud at the end of a musical. After all, musicals are uplifting. The audience filed out of the theater in near silence. I thought this was odd.


I read a rave review of this movie. All I can say is that it has been so many years since the hey day of movie musicals, that audiences (and some critics) don’t know how glorious they can and should be. They watch garbage like this and think it is good or at least acceptable because they don’t know Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, the Nicholas Brothers, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and all the other great performers who lived to sing and dance and were the best of their day. And don’t forget that those lucky performers got to sing Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harry Warren and all those other great songwriters.


I’m not saying that we need to make movies like they used to. Actually, this movie tried to do that, but nobody working on it knew anything about those old movies. How about Hollywood letting someone who knows how to make a musical create a movie that comes from knowledge of the tradition, but reflects our modern sensibilities? Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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  • Frits Schjøtt on

    Thanks a lot, David – as always a thorough and satisfying reading.
    My first ‘jazzfilm’ was “New Orleans” with Satch and Lady Day in 1947 – when I was 12. I spent 2 months’s of pocket money to see it again and again.. I’ve never seen a ‘jazz-musical’ – and would actually not believe in this oxymoron. But several good musicals, that you mention – West Side Story, South Pacific etc.
    Funny to think of, that jazz, record-making and film is almost of the same age – and have been going parallel for now a century. So I stick to the records, the films made about and with jazz-men – and the still living and vibrant (among others: Thanks to you) JAZZ. Keep blowing! – and happy new year,
    Frits from Denmark

  • Chuck Israels on

    When I saw the title of this blog, I expected to be reading about jazz performances/recordings, and many things you discuss in relation to this film are equally applicable to our music. I am as offended (far beyond simple disappointment) by most of what is promoted as creative contemporary jazz and deafly accepted by uninformed consumers as you are about this film, and it is as important to stand up and be counted among those who understand the differences between puffed up empty posturing and useful communication in music as it is in cinema.

    A thoughtful comment was posted about one of my contributions to this blog some time ago that admonished me not to espouse such a discriminating point of view, lest it exclude potential listeners of what might be seen as more catholic, or less specific tastes. It is not my role to be inclusive in that way – to espouse pretentious and bad art in order to be inclusive of empty “musical calories”. There are measurable, demonstrable elements in a wide range of worthwhile art whose absence renders other efforts impoverished by comparison. It is our job to produce worthwhile communication and someone’s job to discern and point out the success or failure of our efforts – to provide guidance and feedback both for us and for our listeners.

    I know of nowhere to go for reliable guidance in fields in which I am only a somewhat discerning consumer, not an expert – like cinema, and it is increasingly clear that there is an absence of informed guidance in jazz that results in similarly hyped and empty music productions. I can easily think of many similarly misguided and vacuous jazz performances/recordings that have had a response like that of La La Land – big promotions, Grammy nominations and wins, and audiences that I see accepting a kind of detached lack of involvement that they accept as normal because they have been told the music is good, or because there is some “production value” that captures the surface of their attention.

    Of course, not everything needs to be experienced at the highest level. We’d become exhausted and over-stimulated, But again, there are measurable, comparable elements whose absence renders things “Blah, Blah, Bland” or worse. Pointing them out – talking about what needs to be included at all levels of artistic communication needs to be done for the sake of art and it’s audience. Where are the critics who are supposed to be doing this?

    Perhaps part of the problem is that published critics are dependent for their survival on the ongoing public consumption of the things about which which they are expressing opinions. My late uncle was the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years, and he described his situation as being a hostage to the institutions he was reviewing. He could not frankly and fully criticize a performance of the opera company or the orchestra without threatening the well-being of those institutions and ultimately putting himself out of a job.

    Lots to consider here – and this is a well expressed description of your experience with this film. My point is – that the culture that produced it is the same culture that produces the majority of contemporary jazz (and pop) music, and that it is a culture that ignores obvious standards of comparison. It seems important to me that thoughtful people take the time and risk to point out these things.

    Nice to hear from Freda!


  • Bob Schwartz on

    Hi Freda! Out here at CES an old friend asked how the band was going, then said I HAVE to go see La La Land. I said I had heard from some musicians that it, er, lacks authenticity. They said oh no, it’s wonderful and depicts the struggles of professional musicians. Suggests why nobody walked out. Authenticity is not well recognized today ….

  • Gordon Tapp on

    I haven’t seen LaLa Land but based on the premise and Hollywood’s typical mishandling of all things “jazz” I gave it a miss. One thing you said in your review struck a chord in me (a diminished one no doubt) and that was your comment about how the lyrics were unintelligible during the production number. At 60 years old I realize my hearing isn’t what it used to be but I have a suspicion that sound engineers have forgotten how to mix! I can still listen to old 78 rpms and even through all the bacon-frying surface noise the vocalist always stands out front and centre, but now both in movies and on recordings the intelligibility of the actor/singer is often lost in the background, whether music or ambient sound. Or maybe it’s just me… but listening to recordings of Frank Sinatra or Ella, even singing in front of a powerhouse like the Basie big band, is always easy and you can hear every nuance in the voices. It seems to me that’s been lost, or the esthetic has changed to the point where the words don’t matter. Just an observation.

  • David Berger on

    So true, Freda. I know that you know.

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