Writer and Producer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller. J.K Simmons. Paul Reiser. Melissa Benoist.
Running time: 106 mins.
A film about drumming, stressful drumming, drumming and shouting. These are not the most stable of building blocks when constructing a blockbuster titan of a movie, constructed to consume all nearby awards. Yet this is what this latest cinematic creation looks set to do, and the shadow of Oscars loom on the horizon. So why? And is it deserved?
This film sees 19 year old Andrew Neimann (Teller) pursue his dream of becoming a successful jazz drummer. We follow his journey at Schaffer music school when famed conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) accepts Andrew into his concert band. Neimann soon discovers that Fletcher’s methods are intense to say the least, berating and making his musicians as he strives to perfection and breaks down his musicians to build them up into artists. Neimann becomes obsessed with gaining Fletcher’s approval and crafting himself into a drumming legend for the ages. As the cinema teaches us though life is cruel for the amusement of the voyeur and his journey brings him into conflict against his fellow musicians, Fletcher as well as his own volatile frustrations.
The pressure is on when it comes to the musical score in a film solely about music, and thankfully it nails it like a successful high note. The swing and jazz is a constant contrast to the events of the screen and yet strangely translates well. The jaunty tones play while Neimann trawls through the dreary, concrete network of the city, hinting at he music he ponders and internalises or the future he strives to escape these humble beginnings for. As Neimann strives and practices or the band plays together, sinister undertones simmer beneath the thin veil of harmony they produce. Again the contracts works as the fantastic editing cuts in sync with each clash of cymbal and change of tempo, glances are shared and teeth are clenched as joyful musical peaks sound out alongside.
The actors and characters are deliberate and fantastic, Teller is understated and intense as Neimann who often simmers instead of blazes and mostly churns instead of boils. Simmons is being hailed as a career defining turn as Fletcher and deserves every accolade. He is a driving force of nature, burning up all in his path as he quests for the talent strong enough to stand against him and be left lying in the debris. Even in image Fletcher is clad all in black and sporting impressive biceps like a powerful spectre floating among his students, hovering above his prey to consume their success and punish their mistakes.
Neimann is not the most likeable character, mathematical in his decision and cold in his executions. Whether it be with new girlfriend Nicole (Benoist), viciously tearing his rival drummers down or verbal disassembling of his relatives like having Paxman over for dinner. Yet his negative actions come from a place of vulnerability, short scenes with other musicians and his family give a feeling of fear and a determination to no longer be ignored. Even as he gains confidence and success it’s painful to watch his wry smiles and arrogant mistakes. A young man so caught up in his own hubris that he strikes out in defence of a future he hasn’t earned yet. His character makes him hard to root for but his passion and relentless drive make him inspiring and his vulnerabilities make him human. Being believable is a close as he gets to being this film’s hero.
Fletcher is by far the most entertaining and fearsome part of this film, driving the narrative like he drives the breath and motions of his musicians. Watching him work is like being a child again and invokes the memories that most of us have. Assigning nicknames and making us want to have a awkward, fear filled laugh as he mocks those around us even repeating a style of joke as teachers tend to do. It’s funny but terrifying and not too ‘Juno’ witty as to be unbelievable. He is an enigma in his methods as he chats calmly to a young girl and to Neimann only to throw a chair, strike Neimann or use information from a pleasant talk to goad and destroy him. Many mysteries such as missing books are never fully answered, but one revelation of manipulation from Fletcher gives you enough evidence and reason to suspect he had his hand in more. Conducting the actions of Neimann and therefore his rise and fall. Fletchers fist motion to his band which is the signal to stop playing, has the dread laced weight of a Roman Emperor with his thumb downwards, condemning a gladiator to his demise.
The story is well paced, well shot and fits a lot into what feels to be a short journey, this started out as a short film in its first incarnation and is not stretched too thin. The camera focuses and cuts with artistic ease and effect. An early shot shows too friends talking close to the camera but out of focus as Neimann sits behind his drums in focus, showing his outside status as the drums shield him from the world he craves yet fears. As he winces and crashes at his cymbal the focus is lost from the drums and you see only his face, the emotion the focal point over the sensory crescendo of the music. His blood seeps into iced water and beads of sweat ripple across the drums, an extension of his pain and anxiety as they become one.
This is not just a film for musicians though with dialogue catchy and inclusive and interaction the main event to watch. This being said the setting and content is captured well so as to dissuade critical musicians from attacking them. I attending my girlfriends university as she studied music and it struck a nostalgic chord (sorry!) with me as the music students in the film chatted and merged together with the sounds of instruments being prepared, papers rustled, spit being emptied from trumpets and certain notes being requested. This detail is a nice touch and stops it feeling fake or like a play or even like the short film it originally was before Chazelle could drum up (sorry again!) the support to make it feature length.
Other characters move and speak around the main cast but with little influence and locations are scarce and quick except the practise room. This gives a claustrophobic feel of music being Neimanns only constant stability. Neimann’s family and Nicole are barely involved which helps to not overpower the main narrative but this means that when they do the message is not always subtle and chemistry between the young couple is limited though thankfully not believable as Neimann fumbles through his lines with accidental charm. Neimann and Fletchers relationship is cryptic and unfathomable as they bond, lie, fight, betray and perform. They glare and argue over the drum kit, the one thing that emotionally binds them and often the one thing physically divides them. You realise towards the end that this is not a story to take sides in but a show to merely sit back and enjoy.
Ultimately the last performance of caravan sums this film up as it plays in its entirety. Family and girlfriend distanced and forgotten, Fletcher and Neimann going through every emotion together with all previous actions and results lost in a crescendo of the present. It becomes clear that any investment and interaction is not important and the only thing that matters is the sound they produce. That the music is all that matters and that the scarcely show friends, family, romance and drama are nothing but background noise.
The verdict: A pleasure to experience throughout, this is a meticulously written and conducted piece with the cast on finest song.