Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Synopsis: Miles Teller plays a young aspiring jazz drummer who is driven to be the best and hoping to gain respect from a tyrannical and psychotic music teacher played by J.K. Simmons.
What work(s): The tension. Holy shit is this movie tense. J.K. Simmons is like Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket in the way he berates and abuses his students. Actually I think Hartman was less abusing. He actually tortures Teller to the point of bleeding for drumming. He slaps his face a few times to illustrate tempo! However, Simmons also shows a soft soft but it’s borderline schizophrenic the way he’s nice one moment and Machiavellian the next. In some instances it’s manipulative when he uses personal information from Teller to insult him later on. It’s truly one of the best performances I’ve seen in the long time and one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen too. He’s truly a great villain and probably should be Lex Luthor in the new Superman movie but we instead get Jesse Eisenberg who’s only great at being cocky and snotty. Speaking of cocky and snotty, Miles Teller turns in another great performance of being the tortured drummer. After seeing the film, I was baffled that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination since he did all his own drumming in the film. The solos he performs in this film are highly impressive and pulse-pounding. However, this is the second film I’ve seen Teller in after The Spectacular Now and I have to say he is basically playing the same character except in this film he’s more focused and determined instead of aloof and lackadaisical. But he’s a cocky asshole. But it works in this film to add to the tension between him and Simmons. The whole driven to greatness theme of the film works well as we see a great drum student excel slightly in the eyes of Simmons and fall hard when he fails. Simmons explains that to be great at something you have to push yourself to extremes and being a great teacher has to be extreme to guide the student to be the best. It’s harsh and cruel for a purpose. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen sort of mentality that either you take the shit thrown at you to get it right or you cry home to your momma. It’s a great theme for today’s audience where in this country nowadays, everyone gets a trophy for just showing up.
Besides the tension throughout, the tone also flirts with psychological horror-esque images, sounds and of course characters. It was almost Kubrickian the way the film made us feel while watching it. It was madness seeing this bright, talented kid go to extremes physically and mentally as he struggles to better hone his craft as well as try to gain respect and admiration from the no-bullshit Simmons. But Simmons is not there to make friends. The lengths Simmons puts his music students through just for one measure of a song are borderline psychotic. I’m sure for a filmgoer with a weaker constitution, this would not only frighten but truly disturb them. However, both Teller and Simmons are nuts, yet the film succeeds in making us hate AND care about both of them. Not an easy feat at all.
What fail(s): There’s not much to complain about really. There’s certainly nitpicks here and there and elements of the story that veer off into some suspension of disbelief. Without giving too much away, Simmons’ scheme at the finale is a bit over the top for his tastes really—unless you believe that he really is that evil, then it’s a huge twist, whoa moment. I must admit I was a little taken aback at his scheme but I was also grinning at it because of his nefarious nature. It also made sense for the ultimate outcome but it was still a little much. Wish I could elaborate more but it’s too spoilery. I mentioned Teller being too cocky and he is a tad for his student character. He’s a freshman and with just a little success in Simmons’ class he already is attacking his cousins for playing football and not seeing their potential in playing a sport. That’s just one example of how much of a dick he can be. Another scene he breaks up with his girlfriend because he sees her as eventually distracting him from becoming the great drummer he hopes to be. In other words, what doesn’t work for me was how much he’s not relatable or heroic enough to root for because he’s a douche. The only other thing I can complain about was the awful teal & orange tint of the film which is basically in every film nowadays and it’s so annoying. Usually I can ignore it but for some reason it was worse on this film.
Overall: I really enjoyed this film despite its really cruel nature and devious characters. Even without knowing squat about time signatures, tuned instruments, tempo or basically anything about playing an instrument (it probably helps to truly enjoy this film if you do though) I still grasped the concepts and themes of driving yourself crazy over achieving greatness. Pushing oneself over the edge to not only succeed but be the best is insane and seeing a teacher torture his students to be better than just great is not often seen as the focus of a film. It’s a rarely seen ugly side of human nature and it’s hard to compartmentalize the emotions of seeing someone go through hell to become uniquely great and on the other hand seeing that the ends justify the means. Like a harsh and cruel drill instructor getting the best damn soldier he can, but how far can the instructor go until it becomes ‘too’ immoral? This film plays with that theory and tests its audience. I left the film with a lot of internal questions as well as being entertained and that’s probably the best feeling after seeing a good flick.
Score: 8 Not My Tempos (out of 10)