Four years after La La Land was criticized for its White Jazz Savior narrative, Damien Chazelle’s The Eddy shows what jazz is truly all about.
Four years after Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was criticized for its White-Man-Saves-Jazz narrative, the filmmaker’s new Netflix series, The Eddy, shows what jazz culture is truly all about. Most importantly, The Eddy underlines the fact that working musicians don’t have to choose traditions over modern trends (or vice versa) and also that an open mind is crucial to the overall process. Co-produced and co-directed by Chazelle, The Eddy released in May 2020, and stars André Holland as an American jazz musician trying to get by in Paris.
In La La Land, jazz obsessive Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) worries that Tinseltown is losing its sense of musical culture. He dreams of reviving a famous club, and even drive fives miles just to grab a cup of coffee in the same area where the legends once performed. When discussing a possible date with a young woman, Sebastian asks a friend “Does she like jazz?” And so the message is clear: Sebastian enjoys some jazz. Maybe even too much, evidenced further when he meets Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and experiences a mild breakdown upon listening to the actress reductively tag jazz as “elevator music.” As with most roles, Gosling infuses a touch of subtle comedy into his performance, fully aware that his white character definitely isn’t the Jazz Messiah. After La La Land released, Gosling even parodied his character Sebastian while hosting Saturday Night Live, using every jazz cliche in the book while discussing the cultural legacy of New Orleans – or, as he calls it, “Nerlins.”
To be fair, La La Land does indeed acknowledge the White Savior concept within the movie itself. John Legend’s Keith confronts Sebastian and states, “Jazz is dying because of people like you” while reminding his “traditionalist” friend that the music is about the future. And therein lies the film’s tragic element, as Mia ultimately becomes a famous actress while Sebastian remains stuck in the past. He also becomes a better musician, theoretically, through heartbreak. But if La La Land is a love letter to basic jazz concepts (spontaneity, structure, love, and love lost), The Eddy is all about the hustle of working musicians trying to get through life from day to day, but slowing down when it’s time to focus and perform. The Eddy is fundamentally rooted in a sense of culture, as people from different backgrounds connect through music and shared experiences at a Parisian jazz joint.
In The Eddy Elliot Udo (Holland) doesn’t walk around proclaiming his love for jazz like La La Land’s Sebastian. And that’s because he genuinely lives the jazz life, even if he hasn’t publicly performed in four years. Elliot isn’t worried about presenting an image, as he’s more concerned about fulfilling his creative visions, which leads to plenty of conflict with his diverse group of friends and colleagues. When one of them is killed, Elliot keeps playing because The Eddy is all that he’s got left (or so he believes), aside from his daughter Julie (Amandla Stenberg). By understanding and appreciating the cultural backgrounds of his friends Farid (Tahar Rahim), Amira (Leïla Bekhti), Maja (Joanna Kulig), and Katarina (Lada Obradovic), Elliot’s relationship with the music changes from day to day as new experiences shape his worldview. With La La Land’s Sebastian, it’s like he’s sporting a jazz costume, even if he understands how to play the music. The audience just can’t know how much Sebastian has experienced in life, or what really drives him beyond the obvious. In The Eddy, there’s a lived-in aspect that makes the collective episodes almost feel like a documentary.
The Eddy also doesn’t reject the potential of modern jazz or suggest that the characters are living out some type of fantasy that won’t lead to anything. Like Sebastian, The Eddy musicians love to perform and would likely feel empty inside if they couldn’t. And that’s ultimately what motivates Elliot through it all – the audacity of hope, and those moments of realization when his mind expands through music. La La Land ends with Sebastian tipping his cap to the past and what could’ve been. In The Eddy, Elliot seems to experience a reawakening after reassessing his life priorities. Elliot isn’t a Jazz Savior, he’s just protective of his musical culture, and skeptical of people who show up for the wrong reasons.