Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 7; Sex 7/Nudity 1.
Our star ratings (0-5): 4.5
For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Although billed as a film about a student jazz drummer and his brilliant teacher, this film belongs also in the “Monster” category. And yet strangely, while I was leaving the theater, it was not Frankenstein, but Babe that came to my mind while thinking about the intense experience of watching the movie. More on this later.
Director-writer Damien Chazelle, who himself has had experience as a drummer, presents us with a film that claims to show the value of cruelty in driving a talented person toward perfection. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a passionate drummer just beginning his career at the prestigious Schafffer Academy in New York City. His idols are Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich. We often see the latter’s book in Andrew’s room where he listens to their recordings. The fictitious Academy is the equivalent of those boot camps in war movies where a harsh drill sergeant makes life hell for the recruits.
One day while Andrew is intensely practicing, the legendary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), steps in and out of the room, thereby taking an interest in him. Invited to sit in as a backup drummer for Fletcher’s legendary jazz ensemble, Andrew soon sees what a hard taskmaster Fletcher is. Better, what a vicious, inhuman teacher is the man, who earlier had seemed to take a personal interest in him. During a practice session Fletcher stops after a few measures. He angrily accuses a player of being out of tune. He does this a couple of times, saying that either the offender is trying to sabotage the rehearsal, or else he is stupid and doesn’t know he is off. Finally settling on a hapless brass player, he demands to know whether or not the young man knows he is off key. The trembling boy fumbles his words, then pushed by his accuser, agrees that he is the one. Fletcher yells at him that he is not off key, but since he is too stupid to know it, he should get out of the band and never show up again.
It is not very long before Andrew is undergoing similar treatment. He gets his chance to be the main drummer through a mishap, but this only exposes him to more of the vitriol of Fletcher. The teacher tells Andrew, “Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will f–k you like a pig.” When a tear seeps from the boy’s eye, the teacher sneers, “Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”
During another rehearsal Andrew still cannot play fast enough for Fletcher’s exacting demands. The student he replaced is then told to try, and he too fails. As I recall there is one additional drummer put through the ordeal, all three taking their turns at trying to satisfy their leader’s expectation. What starts as a simple, “Not quite my tempo,” turns into screams and insults. The hours pass by, and still Fletcher is not satisfied with any of them. He tells the other band members they can take a break while he works on the three percussionists. On and on each drummer takes his turn at playing his heart out, with the teacher’s screams as loud as the drums. At last around 2:30 A.M., Fletcher is satisfied, dismissing everyone with the reminder that they are to assemble in three hours—and no one should be late.
It becomes obvious that Andrew has become obsessed to reach the perfection demanded by his teacher. Now practicing during every waking moment, he breaks off a romance with the girl (Melissa Benoist) who runs the concession stand at the local movie theater. His father is worried about him. He practices until his hands bleed from the sores caused by handling the drumsticks for so many hours. For hours he plays with a frenzy that is usually associated with whirling dervishes and self-flagellants. At a family gathering he displays a disdain for his brothers who are athletically talented, telling the family that he wants to be remembered as the greatest drummer in the world.
Fletcher justifies his harsh methods by arguing that this is the way to push talented musicians to go beyond their expectations. So cruel are his methods that we, and the members of his jazz ensemble, are surprised when he enters the practice room one day and announces that he wants them to hear something. Informing them that one of his most talented former students had just died in an auto accident, he plays a tape of a recording by the student. But then it is back to business as usual. Matters for Andrew spin out of control, and he finds himself having to make a difficult decision concerning his abusive teacher—and then later learn just how vicious and vindictive the man can be.
The climax of the film is a stunning percussion sequence that leaves Andrew covered with sweat and bloodied hands, but which also—well you should see for yourself. Although the writer-director for most of the film leaves it to us to judge Fletcher, I think with this ending, he is pushing the scale toward the teacher. And even the suggestion that it requires such cruelty that all kindness and decency are to be laid aside to bring out all of the talent of a gifted person, well, this is what led me to think of the animated film about the little pig “with an unprejudiced heart.”
Babe is an orphaned pig raised by the sheep dogs Fly and Rex. Farmer Hoggett, having discovered that the little pig seems to possess herding talent, calls on Babe when Rex is injured and unable to perform in the upcoming sheepdog contest at the county fair. Rex and Fly have been used to snapping and biting the sheep to do the bidding of Hoggett. But the gentle Babe talks to the sheep instead of shouting and threatening them. At first they pay him no heed. This upsets the dogs. Fly advises Babe, “Make them feel inferior – abuse them, insult them.” When Babe says, “They’ll laugh at me,” his foster mothers replies, “Then bite them! Be ruthless. Whatever it takes, bend them to your will.” Rex is beside himself at the idea of a pig taking his place. However, when Babe talks to the ewe named Maa, with whom earlier he had become friends, Maa gets the other sheep to listen to Babe and do what he asks. Later on even Rex will become a part of getting a herd of sheep to listen to the pig. This wonderful animated parable presents us with two styles of leadership: on the one hand is that based on the use of fear, humiliation, and force. On the other hand is one which respects the dignity of others and so uses persuasion and explanation to bring about cooperation. Fletcher’s method, so much like Rex’s, might produce great performers, but where is the love and the joy of music in his method—and what kind of a human being is he turning out?
Along with large doses of the jazz songs “Caravan” and “Whiplash,” both of which include incredibly complex percussion solos, the film treats us to two Oscar-worthy performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. You will not soon forget their characters and the issue of the kind of leadership/teaching necessary to push a student to achieve her or his best. In a nutshell, is it Brute Force or Inspiration? Are “good job” really “the two most disagreeable words in the English language”?
This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the Dec. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.