“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’,” says Terence Fletcher, a hard nosed, no nonsense but two-faced jazz teacher. Fletcher, played with vitality by J.K. Simmons (“Spider-man”, “Juno”), teaches at Shaffer Conservatory, and has the most talented musicians at his fingertips. He conducts the jazz ensemble like a drill sergeant, mocking his students when they mess up–even when they haven’t. He expects perfection, and is willing to squeeze every ounce of respectability out of himself to get it. He’ll swear, throw things, bark, threaten, whatever. But he demands the best, and it seems as though he gets the best, too.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young apprentice, an aspiring jazz drummer who has been playing since a young age, looking up to guys like Buddy Rich to inspire him. He plays with a certain drive and fervor that Fletcher likes, and invites him to be a backup drummer (basically turn the music sheets for the starter in the ensemble) to get a taste of being part of the prestigious Shaffer, boosting his ego enough to ask out the local theater girl (Melissa Benoist), and practice his skills. Fletcher seems impressed with his abilities, and he allows Neiman a shot at the drums after the lead drummer loses his music sheets (possibly a scheme hatched by Fletcher). He tells Neiman to “just have fun”–but Fletcher instantly turns on him when he doesn’t hear what he wants to hear.
Neiman is at first high on himself and egotistical for earning the first spot, and somewhat brags at the dinner table to his dad (Paul Reiser) and family members. He mocks a star football athlete at the table, since he’s only Division 3, and maintains that he will be one of the greats. He also breaks up with Nicole, the theatre girl, promising that as his drumming gets more serious, he will not have time for her.
Fletcher plays games with Neiman, allowing another alternate to take the first chair, and putting Neiman down in the process, knowing he’s hurting him. But Fletcher doesn’t care. Only in a very surreal moment when Fletcher stops practice to tearfully lament about a former student’s fatal car accident, do we ever possibly see a “softer” side of him.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle masterfully puts this story together, where it first seems like a standard “kid who really wants to make it and against all odds breaks through” story, it winds up going in a completely different direction. It’s refreshing to see a fresh spin on something seemingly predictable. While it still follows a formula and never strays from being a coherent narrative, there are surprises and climaxes that are exhilarating.
The last 10 minutes of the film had me holding my breath, clinging to my seat, as Andrew beats on drums so fast his hands bleed. He’s desperate…but he’s not desperate to impress anyone. This story is not about how a young kid became a great jazz drummer. It’s not even really a story about jazz. All of the jazz used (songs by Hank Levy and Juan Tizol) is aggressive, muscular…it’s not something to grab a cup of tea and relax to. There’s a fever pitch to the music, which burns inside Andrew and it burns inside Fletcher as well. The film is about obsession, mania, losing yourself to the work you are putting in. It’s not about practicing or rehearsals, or the big show, even though all of those elements are in the film. All Andrew wants to do is drum, and when he gets over his own ego, realizes that the whole world can disappear for all he cares as long as he’s finally “got it”. And Fletcher knows that.
There’s a story that’s passed along in the movie that is a bit made up but based on fact. It involves Charlie “Bird” Parker, where Fletcher relates the story as Parker was performing badly and a cymbal was thrown at his head by Jo Jones, creating the nickname “Bird” because of his reflexes. After that night, Parker never made a mistake again and became legendary. In reality, a cymbal was not thrown at his head. But the point of the story is not even about making a mistake and being punished for it. It’s the obsessive nature of having to be perfect–and not to perform. But to be within perfection itself. It’s so that you have total control over your art, or whatever you do. The film’s standard protagonist is Neiman, and people would say Fletcher is the antagonist. In a way I think both of them are protagonists, and I think the antagonist is the obsession, with the object being jazz. Sure Fletcher is a brute, but what lengths he goes to in order to teach perfection is no less than the lengths Andrew goes to achieve it. It’s compelling, but not preachy or moral.
And it’s certainly not easy listening.
Homages are always a tricky thing to pull off. You want to celebrate what you’re paying homage to, but you also want to make something your own as well. Sometimes it works well, like in the case of Woody Allen’s “Everyone Always Says I Love You” which of course was an homage to musicals, and was itself a musical. Examples where it doesn’t work, in my opinion, would be J. J. Abrams’ mindless “Super 8” which attempts to capture Spielberg at his best and wound up just capturing his own self indulgence.
In Michel Hazanavicius’s new film “The Artist”, he pays homage to the silent film era. This certainly is a case where the homage works with flying colors (pardon the expression). The film starts in 1927 and focuses on a successful silent film era star named George Valentin (played wonderfully by Jean Dujardin), who has just premiered his latest success when one of his admirers has a chance encounter with him at the premiere. An eye catching beauty, Peppy Miller (played equally wonderfully by Berenice Bejo) winds up bumping into him while he’s getting publicity photos taken. To enhance the moment, he leans in and gives her a kiss, igniting a storm of curiosity–“Who’s that Girl?”
Peppy winds up auditioning for a bit part in an upcoming film with Valentin as a dancer, and winds up becoming a star herself. Valentin’s life begins to come apart as the years go by, however, with a wife that he doesn’t love, nor does she love him (played by Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out after his career’s fallen apart due to the introduction of “talkies” and the death of silent cinema. Determined to remain a silent actor, Valentin makes his own film which is a bomb; meanwhile, Peppy’s starring in a film that becomes a huge hit. Valentin fires his long time butler (played by James Cromwell) after suffering not only his film career collapse, but also the stock market crash of 1929, and lives by himself with his cute little dog in an apartment. One night, in a fit of anger after watching reels of his glory days, he sets fire to them and the whole apartment catches fire.
He’s rescued in a Lassie-like moment by his dog, and is taken care of by Peppy to somewhat his dismay. He also sees that she’s collected all of his possessions that he had to put up for auction to keep himself afloat financially. He is the ultimate “tormented” artist and hits rock bottom pretty hard when he realizes he has nothing left to give the world of cinema. But Peppy has a few ideas…
The film’s plot is simple, and the delivery is straight forward. But it’s done with such grace, such a light touch, that it’s instantly charming and very amusing. It takes a few minutes to perfectly set yourself in accordance to “silent film” mode; but once you’re there, you hardly notice that it’s a silent film at all and enjoy it as a film itself. That’s really the key to why this film is so good. As an homage, it does everything right. The expressions of the actors are big and over the top, and Dujardin has an instant appeal and a throwback look to him that it’s almost as if they plucked him from the silent era and plopped him in. The same could be said about his co-star, Bejo, who with one flap of her eyebrows has you melting in your seat.
Now, I thought to myself, if this were a regular “talkie” film, would it have been as good? Sure, it would’ve had all the elements to make it good. It would have been satisfying, I think. But something big would be missing. And the fact that it is silent is what gives it such power. We are nearly a century removed from that era. That would be like giving someone an Apple IIe computer and say, “Here, use this.” We’re so used to talking in films, and explosions and special effects–to strip that all away, except for a musical track (that itself goes silent a few times for effect in the film), could have been a huge miscalculation. But Hazanavicius has such a love for that era, you can tell, and his passion shines through. The film never drags, although the third act does begin to feel a bit familiar and a tad repetitive; by the time you’re aware of that, however, it ends, and leaves you with a big smile on your face.
This isn’t just a celebration of silent film; it’s a celebration of film in general. Its simple message of staying true to yourself as an artist and things will pay off echoes warmly rather than flatly; and its sincerity and earnest performances save it from being corny or hokey.
It’s also a treat to see names like John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell (although he’s only in a bit role) bring something to the “silent era” as well, as their faces are so recognizable–it was interesting to see them, and not really hear them. In fact, there are only 2 moments in the whole film in which you can hear sound. Both scenes work extremely well, I thought, and are not at all distracting. The music accompaniment is a great companion as well. In fact, the whole film is a piece of music, and every note is pitch perfect.
I haven’t bought an REM album since “Reveal”, and I only listened to it once before being very tempted to throw it out the window of my car. I was so disappointed after a pretty good effort with the “The Man on the Moon” soundtrack, and not only was the album pretty boring except for a few tracks–Stipe just seemed to lose it with the lyrical edge.
REM was one of my favorite bands growing up. I not only enjoyed the music, but the lyrics were so abstract and thought provoking–I used to spend hours reading the lyrics to songs, trying to figure out what Stipe was trying to say–if anything. It was great times.
Even with “Monster”, probably one of the weaker efforts during a time when they were still culturally relevant, and Stipe still had game, there was something to discover.
But after “New Adventures of Hi-Fi”, things just started going downhill. I actually was more of a fan of “Up” than most people I knew–and though there was definitely something lacking, I thought some of the tracks were well done, and I still thought lyrically it was sound. It was still Stipe.
But after that, REM’s music just seemed so branded, especially on “Reveal”. It felt like some studio produced the living hell out of it, and some impostor wrote the lyrics. The songs were just…dumb. There really wasn’t another way to look at the album. And it just signaled the decline of the band itself, though some say it goes back to “Up”.
With “Into the Sun”, I was so bored by the free listening I got from AOL that I didn’t even bother buying it. It was drab, pointless, infuriatingly simple. It didn’t remotely sound like anything REM had ever done. After that I officially ended my run with REM, and decided to only listen to the stuff that I cherished growing up–trying to re-identify with songs that I had taken so many journeys with as a youth.
But there are only so many times you can try and revisit something before it is so familiar, there is nothing left to extract. And that’s what REM became. They reached the Zenith–there was nowhere to go but…down. And it was pretty depressing to realize this because I still felt like they had something left in the tank…ANYTHING…just ONE more thing.
Well, if “Accelerate” is that thing, I can accept it. The album moves. Its sound is reminiscent of “Monster” in that it’s very LOUD. It’s also very stripped down, simple, in your face. There are only 11 tracks, and the album is over before you know it. That’s not very REM like, but after what they’ve been dishing out the last few years, I’ll gladly take it.
The distortion trembles, feeling like every pluck of a guitar string by Peter Buck is smoothly integrated into a wall of sound–each chord progresses predictably but is warmly embraceable, because you know somewhere it will get…Buck-like. And of course it does, and though some tracks feel a bit over produced even for being stripped down, it’s never to the point of destroying the groove.
What made me love Stipe’s lyrics, as I alluded to earlier, was how impenetrable some of them were. I still don’t know what some of his songs are about, and sometimes I think he doesn’t either. But his poetry was absolutely masterful.
He’s lost that. Somehow, he just doesn’t seem to bring that same kind of depth to his words and the flow that he used to possess just doesn’t seem present anymore. I don’t know if that’s because he’s just not in it anymore, or if he is trying too hard to make a point about things. But he never used to use cliche phrases like “Living Well is the Best Revenge”–how could he get so retread?
Because of the flow of the music, however, and because the music was indeed LOUD enough to drown out Stipe’s inferior lyrics, it does not take away from “Accelerate”. I keep wanting to believe Stipe did it on purpose–strip down lyrics like strip down the music–go back to basics.
But then I remember how that sound was never lost with REM–from “Murmur” to “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”–wit a few exceptions. But while the sound may have been found again with “Accelerate”–the poetry of the lyrics still remain…unfounded.
I saw on YouTube the “press conference” that Waits put together for this upcoming summer tour…and I’m pretty peeved that it’s not coming to Chicago. But it is coming to Columbus, OH and St. Louis, MO.
I tried looking on ticketmaster for tickets…none available. So I guess I missed the boat…goddamnit…
he is probably the only one left that is on my list of “have to see before I die”.
He better keep on living!
“downtown train” (rod stewart), “jersey girl” (bruce springsteen), “ol’ 55” (the eagles).
he’s one of america’s greatest songwriters, but he’s got a very selected audience due to the fact that he has a very…distinct voice and songwriting style. started out in the 70’s as a folk singer/songwriter, then in the 80’s threw that away and became one of the most influential, bizarre guys ever to play an instrument or “sing”…his music’s been in soundtracks for “12 Monkeys”, “Fight Club” and “Basquiat”, and he’s been in movies like “mystery men”, “down by law”, “the fisher king”, “ironweed”, and even “the outsiders”.
he’s described as a “beatnik” as well but that kind of cheapens him. he’s definitely an acquired taste but once you’ve acquired it you’ll never go back.
if you’re looking for a start, go for “beautiful maladies”, it’s a collection of his 80’s-90’s stuff. his older stuff, i’d say go for “closing time” or “the heart of saturday night”, or “nighthawks at the diner”.