Greetings again from the darkness. The pursuit of greatness is not always pretty. No matter if your dream is athletics, dancing, music or some other; you can be sure hard work and sacrifice will be part of your routine. You will likely have a mentor, teacher or coach whose job is to cultivate your skills while pushing you to new limits. This film questions whether the best approach is intimidation or society’s current preferred method of nurturing.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first year student at an elite Manhattan music conservatory. Andrew dreams of being a great jazz drummer in the vein of Buddy Rich. When offered a rare shot at the top jazz orchestra, Andrew quickly discovers the conductor is a breed unlike anything he has ever encountered. The best movie comparison I can offer for JK Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher is R Lee Ermey’s Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket. This is no warm-hearted Mr Holland’s Opus. Fletcher bullies, intimidates, humiliates and uses every imaginable form of verbal abuse to push his musicians, and especially young Andrew, to reach for greater heights.
Andrew and Fletcher go head to head through the entire movie, with Fletcher’s mental torment turning this into a psychological thriller … albeit with tremendous music. We witness Andrew shut out all pieces of a personal life, and even take on some of Fletcher’s less desirable traits. Andrew’s diner break-up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) is much shorter, but just as cold as the infamous opening scene in The Social Network. At a small dinner party, Andrew loses some of the sweetness he inherited from his dad (Paul Reiser), and unloads some Fletcherisms on some unsuspecting family friends.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has turned his Sundance award-winning short film into a fascinatingly brutal message movie that begs for discussion and debate. The open-ended approach is brilliant, though I found myself initially upset at the missing clean wrap that Hollywood so often provides. What price greatness? Is comeuppance a reward? Are mentors cruel to be kind? For the past few years, I have been proclaiming that Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is the next John Cusack. Perhaps that bar is too low. Teller just gets better with each film. His relentless energy draws us in, and we find ourselves in his corner … even though this time, he’s not the greatest guy himself. Still, as strong as Teller is, the film is owned by JK Simmons. Most think of him as the dad in Juno, or the ever-present insurance spokesman on TV, but he previously flashed his bad side as the white supremacist in “Oz“. Even that, doesn’t prepare us for Simmons’ powerhouse performance … just enough humanity to heighten his psychological torturing of musicians.
You should see this one for Simmons’ performance. Or see it for the up-and-coming Teller. Enjoy the terrific music, especially Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. See it for the talking points about teachers, society and personal greatness. See it for any or all these reasons – just don’t tell director Damien Chazelle “good job“.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see JK Simmons in a likely contender for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar OR you have been waiting for someone to prove a drum solo can actually be worthy of your attention
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in exploring what is involved in attaining greatness, regardless of the talent or skill
watch the trailer: