Damien Chazelle’s first two outings as a writer/director are debatably legendary. His freshman outing, “Whiplash,” combined gritty performances, wit and passion to explore big ideas about the cost of greatness, music and dreams. His sophomore film, “La La Land,” utilized charming characters, stellar musical numbers, and dazzling cinematography to explore romance and, well … music and dreams.
Both films are dignified in their own right, even if aimed towards slightly different audiences. But which of Chazelle’s jazz-inspired films is the best? I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t “First Man.”
“Whiplash” is a far more raw film. J.K. Simmons gives perhaps one of the most bluntly impassioned performances of the past decade. His rage is tangible, and Miles Teller’s performance echoes it with pain and frustration. The emotions of the film rely on the performances, and the music exists primarily to maintain the pace and energy.
“La La Land” is much more polished. Every little movement, especially during musical numbers, is meticulously choreographed. The color palette shifts to fit the mood but remains almost artificially vibrant. This is a somewhat far departure from the consistently harsh yellows and greens from “Whiplash.”
This color palette is emblematic of the entirety of cinematography in “Whiplash.” While it is nearly perfect for what it is trying to achieve, “La La Land” is simply more memorable, iconic, and grand. Its bold use of shifting colors, surreal settings and Chazelle’s signature dynamic camerawork make it a delight to watch while still enhancing the story.
While Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are similarly perfect in their roles as the previous duo, the film doesn’t necessarily reach the same emotional heights through performance alone. Instead, the sweeping score from Justin Hurwitz carries “La La Land” to emotional glory. It is hard to say which film’s musical and performative approach is more effective, given that both undeniably work, but Teller and Simmons certainly give the more memorable performance.
Finally one necessary consideration in determining the value of any great drama is what it is trying to say. “Whiplash” gives a complicated portrait of an artist desperately chasing greatness. It shows the pain and cost of pursuing this life, and ends with an almost optimistic reverence for these sacrifices — it is all worth it at the end of the day. However, the dichotomy between what Teller’s character has lost versus what he has gained leaves a lot of room for audience interpretation.
“La La Land” explores surprisingly similar themes, but sort of harps on a more specific idea that was found within “Whiplash.” It’s apparent that Chazelle believes that romance tragically must take a back seat in the pursuit of one’s dreams. In a perfect world, there would be room for balance, but that is typically not how the world operates for his characters. This idea is explored within the b-plot of “Whiplash,” but perfected in “La La Land” in a pleasantly straightforward way. There is less room for audience interpretation, but nonetheless a similarly satisfying finale. Sebastian and Mia will always maintain their love for one another, but are content with their separate lives as successful artists.
While “La La Land” may be more enjoyable to watch, and contains incredibly charming performances and music, “Whiplash” delivers more visceral emotions and challenging ideas. For this reason, I believe “Whiplash” is technically Chazelle’s best film to date, and the victor of this Film Fight.
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