Winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival 29-year old wonder kind writer/director Damian Chazelle knows his music. Having been raised in a musical family himself and joined the band in high school. It would only make sense that his debut feature; given that he’s so young, would have something to do with music. I had heard about this one following the Sundance hoopla, and noticed that it had taken home the 2 coveted awards that I had mentioned above. So based on that and that alone I knew I was going to see it. Then I saw a trailer for it that pretty much knocked my socks off it looked so good. I did however think for a second that it looked strongly similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010) about a ballet teacher who pushes one of his students too far. Except here it looked like a musical teacher who pushes his drummer student too far. Which left me slightly skeptical. That and while I’ve liked some of the work of its 2 leads in J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, the former of whom is one of the better “character” actors of our time but one whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a lead role from what I can recall. And the latter, Miles Teller, who prior to this I was only familiar with in his small but memorable role in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” (2009) and as the lead in last year’s mediocre “The Spectacular Now” (2013). A film in which I thought got more credit than it deserved. But after hearing such good things about the film following the festival circuit, particularly that of the 2 actors who received a lot of buzz for their performances, I decided to check it out. What sealed the deal for me was having a lengthy discussion about it with one of the theater reps who spoke incredibly highly of it and who books movies at one of our commercial theater chains that tends to show a lot of the Academy bait-type movies early in the Oscar season. Before those movies get catapulted out into wide release later in the year as they start to get noticed via word-of-mouth. So, I went to see it and just barely chose it over Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Birdman” (a hard decision to make let me tell you). But one that I had nothing but the utmost confidence in.
The opening shot introduces to our first of 2 main central characters, Andrew (played by Miles Teller), in a pan in shot playing a drum solo that tips off the audience right away to the fact that he’s some sort of prodigy of sorts. Which is confirmed soon after when we find out that he is currently enrolled in a prestigious (though fictitious) music conservatory college in New York City. One in which even Andrew himself claims is “the best in the country”. Andrew, like most people who devote 100% of their life into honing their craft so that they can be the best, is a bit of a ghost to most of his classmates who seem to be able to maintain other interests outside of their area of study like most college students. He’s got no friends, is painfully shy, and spends his free time going to the movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). He’s a second year, 19-year-old, back up drummer in class. Who basically just flips pages in the second seat waiting for his chance to be a core player. That chance comes one day in the form of the school’s most prestigious musical teacher, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who also happens to teach the most reputable musical group in the school. One in which every student’s lifelong dream is to get into and play for him. Well, Andrew gets such an opportunity which elevates his confidence to ask out the attractive young girl who works at the movie theater he goes to with his dad. Everything seems to be going good for Andrew. At least for a short while until he gets his first crack at performing for the infamous Fletcher, and soon learns that there’s a method to his madness. The two then go on to develop a teacher-student relationship. A dynamic in which I haven’t seen since R.Lee Ermy’s Sargeant to Vincent D’Onfrio’s Private in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) or more recently Vincent Cassel’s dance troupe instructor with Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). Can Andrew rise to the challenge to fulfill his passion of becoming the best drummer at the school? Maybe one of the all times greats? Will Fletcher help bring this young prodigy get to the top? Or will his perfectionist and unorthodox methods of teaching act as a roadblock to him achieving his dream?
What can I say about this film other than that it was nothing short of exceptional. Easily the best part of it for me were the 2 very fine lead performances on display. It’s refreshing to see such a great script whose characters get played by 2 actors – one who’s relatively new to the game in the form of the young Miles Teller, and the other by a veteran actor like J.K. Simmons whose been in the business for years but mainly as a character actor in bit parts. Both are outstanding, particularly that of Simmons, and both of whom should get some serious awards attention as the critics and Academy start rolling out their nominations in the next few months. Secondly, like some of my favorite films do, it plays into several genres. It contains a sports drama element like 2002’s “Drumline”, part musical, psychological thriller, even at times borderline horror film like the aforementioned “Black Swan” (2010). Though don’t be fooled – at its very center it is first and foremost a concert film, and one of the very best I’ve seen about music in as far back as I can remember. The way the script and cast of professional jazz musicians bring the music to life really needs to be seen to be believed. At its core it’s really a film about the love for music and the lengths some people will go to be the very best. Which zips, booms, and bangs music and breathes new life into the genre with its great jazz, swing, and bebop score. The last thing I think is important to point out, is the testament to the truly great script which never panders to the audience, even if in the first third I thought I had the rest of the film figured out. The way in which it shifts gears in plot and keeps the audience guessing the 2 lead characters’ motivations to me was executed perfectly. Did I also mention it’s incredibly intense yet also an incredibly confident story and assured piece of filmmaking? And one that will have you on the edge of your seat from about a third of the way in until it’s wonderful grand finale. Don’t be surprised if this picture winds up being a dark horse for Best Picture, and one or both of the 2 leads gets Oscar nominations as the year comes to end. This is a smart, well executed and acted sports drama/thriller, about one very unique relationship between mentor and pupil. Which also happens to be one of the year’s best pictures that should easily land a coveted spot on my list of the top 10 films of 2014.