Damien Chazelle: music, dreams and heartbreak

Babylon, La La Land and Whiplash. Come for the reviews, stay for the soundtracks.

Damien Chazelle: music, dreams and heartbreak

Read on for my thoughts on a talented director who has been the mastermind behind some daring films in the last decade. These are movies with ambitious people in the arts and their challenging journeys in fulfilling their dreams. A huge shoutout goes to Justin Hurwitz as well, who has composed the three films featured in this article. As you read the reviews below, listen to the soundtracks of each film - they are emotional and enthralling.

Will update this article if I rewatch any of these three films or catch the mysterious First Man (Damien Chazelle's third film, released 2018).

Damien Chazelle (director) and Justin Hurwitz (composer). Credit: Sonia Recchia/ Getty Images


Premiered: 2022

Watched Feb 08, 2023

Babylon is a movie about stardom. Babylon is a movie about romance. Babylon is a movie about music. Babylon is a movie about movies. Babylon is a movie about being part of something larger than yourself, and how you fill that space.

"'You've been given a gift. Be grateful. Your time today is through, but you'll spend eternity with angels and ghosts."

Damien Chazelle's latest outing takes elements from La La Land's relationships and rise in Hollywood but pits them against the changing nature of American cinema in the 1920s-30s. It is sprawling and extravagant, disconnected and indulgent. Your reaction to the ending in particular will depend upon your relationship with movie history and your own concentration after 3 hours of movie.

Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt are excellent as expected, but this was the first time I saw Diego Calva and he was a suitably handsome lead for the Hollywood setting and period. The surrounding cast are diverse and each have interesting moments, but aren't actually able to be fully impactful due to the sheer amount of stuff in the movie. That being said, Sidney and his trumpet stole every scene they were in.

There are brilliant individual sequences here, with absurd humour and rising tension unveiling the truth behind the camera. These are like music videos, yet the film also shines in the silences in conversations about change and broken dreams. There were also an unexpected amount of oneshots, with Chazelle showing off the range of extras and density of sets in dizzying plentitude.

I personally loved the experience this movie gave me, but can understand those that feel differently. These stories will be around long after me and my writing is gone.

La La Land

Premiered: 2016

Rewatched Feb 14, 2023

Wow. I haven't really touched La La Land since seeing it in theatres at the age of 16. Coming into it as an adult, with a perhaps more jaded perspective and much more world experience, was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Loved the LA setting, Griffith Park observatory especially. The ending absolutely floored me. I didn't really understand it the first time around, but now... wow.

"City of stars... are you shining just for me?"

Chazelle has proven three things to me as a director:

  1. He excels at music in film, not just catchy tunes or scores but songs that show the range of an instrument and genre off and integrate into the story.
  2. He has a passion and love for the arts. His old-school film influence is both more evident and more subtle here compared to his most recent film Babylon. Characters don't exactly say they love cinema, but its presence in the background of scenes speaks volumes and the theatre in particular makes for apt commentary on the state of cinemas today.
  3. The man has a talent behind a camera. Some of the one-takes here, particularly the opening, are dizzying in their logistics. But the choice in colour and cinematography in La La Land give the film its own unique identity, much like Whiplash made use of reds and golds against darker tones. The bright costuming fading into realism as the film's structure moves from musical to harsh reality is praiseworthy.

We need people like Seb who have a deep and unfathomable passion for things, like certain arts, that are dying. The world will always need dreamers like Mia who stand out from the background and, despite perhaps seeking recognition, share their stories with others. And these misunderstood, hurt and lonely individuals will always need a little bit of pure love to propel them forward into whatever life has in store for them.

From the dictionary
La La Land: a euphoric, dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life. Also used as a nickname for Los Angeles, California.


Premiered: 2014

This isn't a full review as it's been years since I've seen Whiplash but I had to write something because this is one hell of a movie. I may have some bias as a drummer myself, but Chazelle's first feature film remains his best - although La La Land gives it a run for its money!

"Were you rushing or were you dragging?"

Independent and shocking, this one grabs your attention and holds it with every hit of the drum. J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller give engrossing performances that are both hard to watch and look away from. If you have any love for music, ambition or teacher-student/ mentor-mentee relationships put Whiplash on your watchlists now.

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🎥 As always, you can find more film reviews on my Letterboxd account here 😄