By Bo Nicholson - Managing Director
*** Be careful, ahead is some discussion about the films Whiplash, La La Land and First Man which some people may consider spoilers. ***
Born in 1985 and hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Damien Chazelle established early in his life a love of film. This is probably a familiar story for any number of filmmakers across the world. Film offers a window into other worlds. It also offers a mirror of our own. The allure of film is almost impossible for some of us to ignore. The same medium that allows us to go on the wild adventures of Iron Man or Han Solo also informs many of our ideas of relationships, of careers, of what to wear and what to think; of how we see ourselves. It’s no coincidence that, sometimes, filmmakers use movies to tell personal stories.
Drums before the Director’s Chair
Chazelle didn’t always have the drive to be a great filmmaker. While studying at Princeton High School in New Jersey he harboured ambitions to be a jazz drummer. Jazz music had stolen the heart of the young Catholic boy who spent 4 years being schooled at a Jewish Synagogue. Apparently, he practiced drums for 6 hours a day desperately trying to impress his music teacher, who would scream and swear at the students or kick musicians out of the band. Sound familiar? If you’ve seen Whiplash, the answer is yes.
Whiplash is obviously inspired by his experiences, but unlike the character Andrew Niemann in the film, Chazelle worked out that he didn’t have the raw talent required to succeed as a drummer and gave up on that particular dream. Instead, he chose to study film at Harvard University, which reignited his love of film and, combined with his love of jazz music, inspired him to research the old MGM musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age. His roommate Justin Hurwitz became one of his best friends and collaborators, composing the scores for each of his 4 films so far. Harvard would also be where he would meet his first wife, Jasmine McGlade. Both of these people helped him to make his student film which would go on to be his first feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a monochrome romance bathed in his love of Jazz. It excited industry types and critics alike, even though it didn’t make back its budget. Upon graduation, he decided to go to Los Angeles to make movies.
He started out as a hired-hand, writing scripts for other people’s movies. Movies like The Last Exorcism Part II and Grand Piano benefitted from his efforts, but he was always waiting for his big break. Whiplash provided that break, which lead to La La Land, his love letter to LA that spoke about the trappings and allure of the show-business industry. Oh, and it’s loaded with jazz, with Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) acting as a last crusader on a mission to save jazz. In so many ways, the parallels to Chazelle’s own life were obvious; the Jazz loving, aspiring filmmaker desperately trying to make a name for himself in a city that celebrates culture before moving on to the next new thing. It’s less obvious to see the personal touch applied to his latest film, First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. That is, until you find the true core of his three most recent films.
The Price of Greatness
What appears obvious in Whiplash, which Chazelle wrote and directed, is the theme that greatness comes at a great personal cost. Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be a great drummer like Buddy Rich; Fletcher (J. K Simmons in an Oscar-winning turn) wants to push his students so that he can uncover the next Charlie Parker. Andrew is terrified of Fletcher, but never balks at a challenge set by the band leader because he sees it as a natural cost of achieving greatness. His quest puts him at odds with his family (particularly his father, whose idea of success is not to be dead from a drug overdose in your 30s, no matter how good you were at music) and his girlfriend, who he breaks up with because her lack of ambition would only serve to distract him from achieving his goals. Andrew becomes cold and distant with the people that he loves and buys into Fletcher’s dangerous games, but by the end of the film the audience is left in little doubt that the 19 year old is destined for bigger things. The audience may wonder whether it was all worth it, but Andrew has achieved what he set out to.
In La La Land, the message is wrapped in more subtlety; Chazelle has traded out the dread of Whiplash and replaced it with an old-style musical, packed with romance and show-stopping song and dance numbers. That the film sets your mind to expect the happy ending that matches the first 90% of the all-smiling and all-laughing film and then refuses to deliver it makes the impact all the more painful. We’d all thought we’d seen this movie before; Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) are star-crossed lovers. He wants to open a jazz club to resurrect the genre and she wants to be a star actress in movies. They’ve both become frustrated at how difficult it is to get their break and each have, at times, given up on their true dreams to settle for more ‘grown-up’ choices. When they break up, Mia receives the opportunity of a lifetime to become the star she always dreamed of being and needs Sebastian to give her the push she needs to take the chance. But he knows that he can’t go with her (he’d only get in the way) and watching her achieve her dreams without him has given him the impetus to chase his own. They each choose to sacrifice one of the great romantic pairings in film history in order to achieve personal greatness. 5 years later, we see that they have, but without each other. After that epilogue, you think for a moment they could end up together, but they know that it is a love triangle between 2 people; his love of jazz, her love of acting and their love of each other. They had to sacrifice one and they made their choice.
First Man, the first film that he has directed which he hasn’t written, certainly feels like a less personal film for Chazelle, but I think that would be a mistake to assume. Behind the fairly brutal re-telling of how Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) became the first man to set foot on the moon is a personal story about the kind of drive it takes to not only be good enough to be selected for such a mission, but the mental toughness it takes to press on in the face of genuine danger and the loss of pretty much all of your best friends and co-workers. The drive and mental toughness caused him to become cold and distant with the people that he loves, almost detaching himself emotionally from the realisation that he may not be returning from any mission that he goes on, a fact that terrifies his wife Janet (played by Claire Foy). Their marriage is tested and his relationship with his children becomes so poor that he wouldn’t have said goodbye to them if Janet hadn’t yelled at him about it. Yet he presses on. In order to become one of the most well-known people of the 20th Century and an international hero he had to endure great hardship and risked losing everyone that he loved and, indeed, his own life. He had to sacrifice it all in order to become Neil Armstrong.
Damien Chazelle presents himself as a happy person, almost star-struck at the idea of working with the likes of Gosling, Stone and Simmons on big budget movies. He’s married Olivia Hamilton just this year (you may remember her from roles in La La Land and First Man) and his star continues to rise. Heck, you may even say that he’s already achieved greatness, having become the youngest ever Best Director winner at the Oscars for La La Land at just 32. But at what cost? Well, he may have given us a clue in some of his movies.
Consider that in 2014 he and Jasmine McGlade divorced. Not a whole lot has been said publicly about this split, but Chazelle offered an interesting insight in an interview with Raphael Abraham for Financial Times in January, 2017. When asked about whether there is a trade-off between romantic and professional dreams, he said “I’ve only recently been lucky enough to feel like they don’t have to be mutually exclusive … I was, for a large part of my life, that kind of hermit, a little bit like Ryan’s character at the beginning of the movie (La La Land): ‘Fuck the world, I’m going to stay in my room and write the next great American screenplay’.”
To achieve the kind of greatness that he wanted to, it appears that Chazelle may have distanced himself from his wife. That’s why for every moment of pure joy that you find in one of his films, it’s often accompanied by a sense of profound melancholy. That was Chazelle’s unconscious understanding of the price of greatness. But there is hope in the above quote, where he acknowledges that you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice everything you have for your professional or artistic dreams. What impact will this change of mindset have on his future work? Time will tell, but I’ll be watching for sure.
Bo Nicholson is a Managing Director at The Pioneer Australia. He maintains that La La Land is one of the best musicals he’s ever seen, but concedes that he has a lot more to see before he calls it the best. Even then it’d have to beat The Wizard of Oz! Is that even possible?