Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 2014. Bold Films, Blumhouse Productions, Right of Way Films. Screenplay by Damien Chazelle. Cinematography by Sharone Meir. Produced by Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak. Music by Justin Hurwitz. Production Design by Melanie Jones. Costume Design by Lisa Norcia. Film Editing by Tom Cross. Academy Awards 2014. American Film Institute 2014. Boston Film Critics Awards 2014. Golden Globe Awards 2014. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2014. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
The action gets underway within the first minutes of this excellent drama, with aspiring musician Miles Teller beating away at his drums while attending the prestigious (and fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music. The school’s studio band leader J.K. Simmons hears him practicing, barks his brand of no-nonsense instructions at him and then walks away, leaving the young student in a daze until Simmons once again crosses his path and tells him to show up to the next rehearsal as alternate for the corps drummer. Teller is nothing but optimism now, achieving the confidence to ask the pretty girl behind the movie theatre counter out on a date and showing off to his football-playing cousins about his success, but inside the studio the atmosphere is not so rosy. Simmons’ methods of getting the best out of his students, achieving the razor-sharp precision of tempo and sound that wins the school its many accolades and trophies, is to shout down, intimidate and in some cases physically abuse his subjects, turning his rehearsals into Navy SEALs training for musicians. His goal, he says, is to make sure the next Charlie Parker happens, but the line he rides between pushing for greatness and being a downright tyrant is murky at the very least; what director Damien Chazelle does so brilliantly in response to is to make the line between disapproving these methods and seeing their value equally as blurry. Teller responds to Simmons’ demonic manipulations by pushing himself harder, rehearsing until his sticks are covered in blood, while the tension between the two men only grows as Simmons alternates between brutality, at which he is terrifying, and the odd moment of innocuous kindness, which only makes him scarier. The result is a fascinating look at the extremes of pursuing excellence in the field of your passion, and the result is a film that offers no easy answers or makes any pat-happy judgments about right and wrong. Chazelle, who first filmed this story as a short some years ago before getting the backing to make a feature, uses the energy created by the rich cinematography and exceptionally good editing and sound design to bring out the pulse-pounding adrenaline that Teller, who is astoundingly good, uses to keep himself going at a complete high throughout.