Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Andrew is a young drumming student at an elite NYC music school. The teacher who shuns him in the opening scene is Fletcher, the fiercest instructive monster on screen since Sgt Hartman in Full Metal jacket, is given a career second-act performance by JK Simmons, a kind of Vladimir Putin with New York smarts. Andrew who must endure the bruising nurture for his emergence into life is given life by Miles Teller whose compelling plainness lifted The Spectacular Now from indy okayness to something strong and dark.
Fletcher's approach is to weaken bravado by removing self-confidence, switching drummers after a very few bars at a time to kill the idea that the kit belongs to any of them. We can see the strategy and also that its subjects cannot and why. When we see Andrew taking his newly-built cockiness into his family and romantic life we witness gross mistakes made through the intoxication of hard narcissism and we wince. But we also project on to the downcast eyes of Andrew, as he is leaving a brutal marathon rehearsal, the exhaustion, anger and perfectionism of a student who has just experienced the rewards of belonging to commitment. And later when one of his narcissistic flubs returns to bite him we are allowed to linger on his sadness and deflation, feeling them acutely.
Acting sorted, how's the travel? Well, if you thought watching someone tap a drum kit for minutes of precious screen time on end spelled death of attention know now that the frenetic MTV style editing of someone playing complicated jazz drumming feels like the heavily taxed alertness of a drummer. Drumming is hard. I can play an ok guitar or keyboard and even stay in tune on a theremin but I can never get past the first bar at a drum kit; it's like swimming for two with one; the sheer coordination of it kills me long long long before I could think of anything creative to do and that's just servile rock common time. When, as one of the lightning cuts of one of these sequences shows, the time signature of a piece includes the numeral 14 it's like the second you understand a maths problem before it slips away and your brain clanks back to normal gearing. We see the parts of the drum kit as details of central control as the loose syncopation rustles and thunders around them. The bandaging of bleeding finger joints and ice buckets remind us of the boxing ring rather than the cross and the jaw slapping lesson in keeping exact time hurts but feels necessary. The sheer intensity of musical performance has not to my knowledge be so intimately captured in fiction cinema as here. Don't compare it to Shine but Jimi at Monterey.
Music runs through this film well outside of the moments when it is played digetically. A scene in the rehearsal room involves a kind of choir of buzzes and clicks as the players set up but it isn't some campy sampler sonata it sounds natural but pushed so that you know it's intended; a kind of movie score concrete. The editing itself has a jazziness that belies the cold-seeming re-enactment of the school performance of jazz and that tension keeps up until the end which presses and delights if it is not meant to surprise. This story is made of music.
On that, if the idea that this is a pursuit of excellence tale about not just a jazz drummer but an academic jazz drummer puts you off then think of this: the struggle to deliver individuality shed of its placental egocentricity, a struggle mounted between a promising neophyte and a violent teacher, is more usually told in a sporting context but here it is expressed through one of our greatest pleasures. We are discomforted to know this but are as glad of our own effort as that which we witness. And this is all done with cinema.