Oh my. I've not seen such a tense film in a long while, especially one which doesn't involve murder, a woman in black, or some kind of heist. I sat for various set pieces of this brilliant movie, directed by Damien Chazelle, with my hands scrunched into my face, teeth set and eyes anxious.
In summary, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a talented, young musician who, having earned a place at a top music academy, finds himself chasing the mentorship of the notorious Professor Fletcher (A K Simmons). After a pressured audition, Andrew joins the prestigious 'Studio' band, where he is mercilessly pushed to succeed by Fletcher, a man who wants to achieve greatness at any cost. A man who despises student's settling for a 'good job' and not suffering and yearning for legendary status. Fletcher's mission in life is to push students further than they knew they were capable of. His teaching style makes jazz school seem like SAS training.
This is not your average, nerd-to-hero, movie. Neither is it your average kung-fu, the-student-becomes-the-master, type of film. It's not an average, full stop.
Talent Vs Grit - the cost of being a legend: I saw this flick with my Mother, who's passion for ballet is only slightly less of that of Fletcher's for jazz. Afterwards, we spoke about what it takes to become a 'legend' and decided talent is not enough. Really it's about grit.
The unseen student 'Stephen' is Fletcher's first prodigy/ victim and we hear his obvious talent at the beginning of one practice session. Movingly, Fletcher reveals Stephen died. A tragedy. But who are Fletcher's tears for: the death of a talented musician, or the death of a potential legend he could tailgate his reputation on? Andrew also has the talent, but the film is really about whether he has the grit and determination to succeed past the self doubt, exhaustion, physical pain, social isolation, bullying, torment and anxiety which ultimately claimed Stephen's life.
Mum made a parallel to Royal Ballet legend Darcey Bussell. She started late to the School, so had two years to catch up and was unusually tall for a prima. Yet she managed to become the youngest principal dancer the company ever had. Was she the only one with talent? No, but clearly she had more grit than the others.
This film makes you wonder if you are a Stephen or an Andrew. Are you motivated or depressed by being cajoled, badgered, harassed, belittled and tormented. Do you want to 'prove them wrong' or walk out in a huff. I think I'd have flounced out of that Studio after the first session and that's why I'm not a living legend, or ever will be. It doesn't mean I don't have talent, I just definitely, don't have the grit needed to sustain that sacrifice for success.
How to win a battle - the central conflict in this film is between the master and the student, one that many kung fu movie fans have seen for decades. How does the master inspire and motivate? Fletcher's tactic is a master-class in misdirection. This man goes from birthday candle to atomic bomb at breathtaking speed, adopting the poetic rhetoric of Shakespeare to fire out insults mixed with pure acid. Owch.
Andrew's naievity is heartbreaking when a couple of weeks in with the Studio band he tells his Dad 'I think he's beginning to like me'. That smile will not be wiped, but smacked off his face before he knows it. After an hour of watching this boy fail every 'test' given, you are desperate for revenge. Fisty-cuffs after his car crash isn't satisfying enough, especially when you realise he abandons his passion once his college career is halted.
So how do you win a battle? With a simple 'F*ck you' and an epic, five minute 'double swing' drum solo. That's how. And it feels so much more satisfying than any blood bath my vengeful heart wished for. Andew's revenge is to prove Fletcher is nothing more than a man waving his hand about at the front of the stage. He usurps his power, bends the band to play to his tempo and takes his time to prove his point. Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant.
Underdog - what I enjoyed about this film is the subtle play around with stereotypes. Andew is not Hollywood handsome, just an average looking teenager, who one could easily overlook or forget. He tells Nicole (Melissa Benoist) on one of their dates that the people at his college don't really like him, he socialises mainly with his Dad and he avoids eye contact with those he meets. He appears meek and humble in the band practices, politely turning the pages and apologising so much, he makes the English look positively rude.
This film is too clever, to have a cheesy grand reveal, where the geeky guy removes his glasses and turns into Bradley Cooper. No. There are subtle hints throughout there's more to this timid chap. He asks the hot girl at the cinema out on a date. Isolated by the stone-faced soldiers of the band, he alone answers back to Fletcher. But best of all, he's got razor sharp wit; much more devastating than the bombastic insults flung about by Fletcher. This is showcased most aptly at one family dinner party - where his obnoxious relatives dismiss his artistic talent, preferring the macho gloating of his jock cousins. Andew's slicing comebacks show this is a mouse who believes in his heart, he is a lion.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film. However, there are some crass stereotypes about suffering to become a genius.Sat in the bar afterwards, Mum and I couldn't decide if Fletcher was a justified barbarian, or socio-pathic masochist. It's up to you to decide if their relationship is inspirational or destructive.