As a precocious young teen I was fond of listening to the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. A friend of mine once told me his parents couldn’t stand to listen Brubeck’s music because it was too hectic. “Those squares!” I scoffed into my ‘spresso. “Jazz ain’t hurtin’ no-one”. Oh how wrong I was.
Soon to be Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic 4 reboot, Martin Teller plays a promising young drummer prodigy – Andrew- who is rung through his bandleader’s regime of grueling practice and putdowns. The bandleader, Fletcher, is played by a ballshrinkingly intimidating J.K. Simmons.
Andrew needs to be the very best at what he does, but can only find appreciation in the most unforgiving environments of rigorous training. His achievements are dismissed at a family dinner party, even though he is in within reach of being the world’s best drummer. Even less impressed is Fletcher, who is witheringly dismissive of a “good job”, and physically abusive when faced with imperceptible inconsistencies of rhythm.
Like this year’s Foxcatcher the film plays a twisted version of the Rocky narrative. Our hero rises, stumbles at a crucial moment, but ultimately rises against the odds toward transcendent success. It even sees the impact it has on those who love Andrew: a lovely turn from Paul Reiser as his sweet natured father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his ruthlessly dismissed girlfriend. But instead of high fives all round, the climactic scene of triumph is a troubling watch, as a strategically broken Andrew finally matches Fletcher’s expectations. Fletcher is proven right, but only in the light of Andrew giving himself to his regime. Andrew is complicit in his success, a complicit victim in an abusive relationship that skews any attempts to label him as a victim.
No film about a in a jazz film would be complete without a soundtrack. Unlike many films about people trying to break into the music scene, the music itself is already fully formed. It’s powerful, hard, bright music that starts when Fletcher says so, and more importantly stops at Fletcher’s word too, who fills the silence inbetween with barking demands.
Director Damien Chazelle who also wrote the film, claims that the story is based on personal experiences as a percussionist in a jazz band. His musical sensibilities certainly comes through his editing, which drives a heightened tension through stabby staccato cuts without drowning the film in stylism and takes the film home in under 2 hours. Which is about as long as my heart could hold out. If you can stand it I strongly recommend.