Film review by Jason Day of the Oscar-nominated music drama starring Miles Teller and J.K Simmons about a budding jazz drummer and his mentor.
Director: Damien Chazelle. (106 mins). Sony/Bold Films/Blumhouse Productions. (15)
Cast & credits
Producers: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak.
Writer: Damien Chazelle.
Camera: Sharone Meir.
Music: Justin Hurwitz.
Sets: Hunter Brown.
Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton.
Andrew (Teller) is an aspiring drummer at a prestigious American conservatoire. Determined to impress his tyrannical conductor Fletcher (Simmons), he goes to extreme lengths, including ditching his girlfriend and practising until his hands bleed. As a battle of wills breaks out between the two men, will his efforts be enough?
The artistic genius in genesis and it’s relationship with the frustrated mentor who attempts to shape their talent is a staple of movie melodrama. James Mason memorably brought a piano’s fallboard crashing down on the pretty fingers of pianist Ann Todd in The Seventh Veil. F. Murray Abraham’s Machiavellian manipulations brought his peer Amadeus Mozart (Tim Hulce) to an early death.
Writer/director Chazelle switches from the classical to the classical jazz world, which is no less a hot bed of ambition, determination and questionable teaching techniques. But here the accent is on an almost military level of achievement, the Schaffer Conservatory a veritable musical West Point Academy.
The pupils stand to attention with bolt upright precision when their mentor (Simmons) enters the room, a man who is on time to the second and barks a slew of impressively creative insults and personal attacks with the stinging accuracy of R. Lee Ermey’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) drill sergeant. In Simmons, all shaved head, muscles and bulging eyed fury, he even looks like one on Special Ops to fancy New York to break down the confidence of the country’s supposedly finest (“You pansy ass fruit fuck” one of his more restrained outbursts).
Simmons, a supporting actor of note in cinema for nearly 20 years, bristles with diabolical chutzpah in the role of a lifetime. His musical Mephistopheles creates an atmosphere before he enters a room. When the film opens, the camera stalks down the corridor to where Andrew practices; the man is omnipresent, all listening. Outside the classroom where another teacher gives a comparatively staid lesson, Simmons’ shadow earwigs, sending waves of expectancy and dread through the pupils.
It’s a performance full of manipulative tricks. He cries when informed of the death of another, beloved pupil, whom you suspect may have suffered similar torture under his aegis and did not expire in a car crash. The tears are shocking as it seems unfathomable why this unforgivable, inhuman bully can possess feeling and emotion.
Later in the film, although you accept his explanation for why he push his pupils to punishingly to achieve greatness in the way he does, he remains wonderfully unsympathetic throughout.
He engages in a great double act with Teller as Andrew, whose sweat-drenched practice sessions lend stunning authenticity to this grueling endurance of a film (it feels much longer than its 1 hour 46 minute duration). His character not only says he will be the greatest jazz drummer of all time, he is able to show it, by pouring his sweat, blood and tears into his art throughout the film, at one point training so hard his hands bleed. He picks himself up after being involved in a car crash and jogs back to a gig, more concerned about being late than the fact he can’t even hold his drum sticks. This is a young man who has drumming entwined in his DNA, whose hands are merely extensions of those drum sticks.
Chazelle ensures the zip of the music is carried over into the film, with lots of rapid camera switches between different orchestra members and instruments. The only minor point is he concentrates too much on the central relationship that the personal aspects of Andrew’s life, his burgeoning relationship (Benoist) and his sweet devotion to his single Dad (Reiser) are noticeably neglected.