January 21, 2015 by Zack
“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.