Is it better to be an innovator or a traditionalist?
With a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, La La Land is widely expected to notch some big wins at the ceremony on Sunday (EW’s own Nicole Sperling predicts it winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress among the major categories). The Damien Chazelle film, which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is a clear throwback to musical and artistic styles of times past: Singin’ in the Rain is often noted as an inspiration and Gosling’s Sebastian cites classic jazz musicians like John Coltrane while explaining his dream of opening an old-school club. But Sebastian isn’t the only character in the movie with strong opinions about jazz. There’s also Keith (played by real-life musician John Legend), has a slightly different take on the genre.
Whereas Sebastian is infatuated with the jazz of the past, Keith heads a more modern outfit that combines older aspects of the genre with newer touches like Legend’s singing and the use of electronic instruments. While Sebastian does end up joining the band and playing a key role in their song “Start a Fire,” he still harbors a traditionalist dream. In a recent interview with EW, Legend explained how he and Chazelle worked to make both options seem real.
“Damien wanted Keith to be a character who people wouldn’t reject, even though Sebastian eventually rejects that career path,” Legend says. “He wanted the music to be credible. Even though it was different from what Sebastian might have done, he wanted it to be a credible path and credible choice to make your career. He wanted the song to be actually good and listenable and enjoyable, but clearly not what Sebastian was aiming for stylistically. That’s the balance we were trying to strike.”
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As a successful musician himself, Legend also has his own take on the musical debate represented by Keith and Sebastian. Is it better to stick to the art you love (as Sebastian wants to do), or experiment with it and push it in different directions (as Keith tries to do)? In one scene, Keith lays out his views in a speech to Sebastian after a rehearsal session, but Legend himself sees both sides.
“I agree with Keith’s speech in the sense that all the ‘greats’ in music or any art form have done something to innovate in the art form, rather than just replicate what’s already happened before,” Legend says. “As much as you can be influenced by the past or have heroes from the past, it’s important to carry that forward and create something new. Any artist that’s been successful, no matter how much they’ve been influenced by other artists, they do something innovative.”
“But,” he adds, “I also believe that it’s fine if you’re Sebastian and you just want to have a jazz club and you just want to play the sh– you like. That’s fine too. You’re just not gonna go down as one of the greats. You’re gonna go down as a guy who had a nice jazz club that provided a nice, nostalgic experience for people. If you’re not doing anything innovative, you’re not gonna go down as one of the greats.”