All keyed up over 'La La Land'

Gosling's piano skills needed work — or a competent double.



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Ryan Gosling as Sebastian and Emma Stone as Mia in a scene from the movie "La La Land" directed by Damien Chazelle. (Dale Robinette/Lionsgate) Dale Robinette/Lionsgate / Los Angeles Times Buy Photos

“It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.”

This is Ryan Gosling’s character telling Emma Stone’s character in “La La Land” why she should care about jazz.

Gosling, the actor, doesn’t actually know that much about jazz piano. That’s fine if he’s just going to talk about it in character, but if he’s going to actually play it, as he does for the movie, we’re going to run into some problems.

In interviews with Gosling, he’s made it a point to bring up over and over again how hard he worked to learn jazz piano for this movie — three months of practice.

That’s insult to jazz No. 1.

The thought that three months of practice with a minimal musical background and no experience with jazz could make someone a competent player is ludicrous. I have been playing the piano for more than 12 years and know full well the amount of practice and effort it takes to actually learn the instrument.

There are musicians who spend their entire lives learning and perfecting their art. Gosling’s character is supposed to be one of them. They spend countless hours in practice rooms with their instrument nearly every day for years on end, often from the time they were small children. Imagine making an art your life’s work, only to watch an actor with no jazz background convince audiences that what he played was good enough.

“La La Land” is filled with actors, musicians and artists trying to make it to the top and competing with a swarm of talented people. They’re all trying to figure out if their talent matches their ambition and struggling to make a living out of their art.

The makers of the movie could have acted in a way reflective of this idea by hiring a talented jazz pianist to be a hand double in the shots of Gosling playing the piano, and to play for the soundtrack.

They could have hired a brilliant musician trying to make their way in a competitive, fickle profession. They could have hired someone honest about their art, someone with true ability.

Professional musicians played the rest of the instruments heard in the score. But somehow Gosling’s chance to play up his efforts in anticipation of major film awards trumped the need for a real musician on the most prominent instrument in the movie.

There’s insult to jazz No. 2.

The filmmakers ignored the very point they were trying to make in their movie by denying that chance to a true jazz pianist. Instead they gave it to someone who, quite frankly, would already be getting plenty of credit for the art he has actually made his profession — acting.

Gosling and the movie’s producers aren’t just letting down musicians. They’re also ripping off their audiences.

In the movie, Stone’s character doesn’t like jazz at first because she’s never heard good jazz. Gosling’s character then endeavors to introduce her and the audience to what real, exciting jazz sounds like. The problem is that what we end up listening to still isn’t good.

That’s insult to jazz No. 3.

If “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and his team wanted us to care about jazz after seeing their movie, they should have given us good jazz to listen to. Instead we’ve got Gosling on keys with barely any idea what he’s doing.

We’re not listening to good jazz — which is what the very, very exciting conflict, compromise and joy of good music can be when played by people who know their instrument like it’s an extension of their own body.

We’re listening to a beginner, and music by a beginner is unlikely to convince anyone that this music is worth their time.

If you come out of the theater a little underwhelmed by Gosling’s supposed prowess, good. You should be.

Now go find some real jazz masters to listen to. Here’s a good starting list: Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Keith Jarrett, Cedar Walton or Sonny Clark.

I can guarantee their 
music will be way more 
fun.

Sarah Gardner

gardnese@iu.edu

@SarahHGardner

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