Thursday, February 12, 2015


(Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014)

Or, Better Musicianship Through Terror.  Or, Mussolini Made Me a Great Drummer.  You get the picture.  Chazelle's film is textbook Sundance twaddle: a superficially sleek contrivance of plot and character, done with rote stylization and decrepit ideas.  In  Chazelle's view, music is an activity that could and probably should be performed by machines.  The only quality humans are capable of contributing is suffering; there is no joy, no passion, just fear and aggression, making musicianship into a kind of bloodsport.  The scenes in which Miles Teller's Andrew performs and is simultaneously subjected to torrents of abuse are the heart of the movie, and they're carried, to the extent that they work at all, by the intensity of the two performers.  They're unpleasant and often ludicrous, but they at least exhibit a kind of reptilian focus.  The characters are each given perfunctory sketches meant to explain them to the audience; nothing changes, nobody is more or less than how they appear.  Andrew is, by dint of his nebbish of a dad and his absent mother, a perfect, overachieving disciple to the cartoonishly militaristic Terence Fletcher, who is ostensibly some kind of a big deal, although the only creativity we see in his character is inventing new ways to degrade his students.

What's most galling about the film is that Chazelle seems to embrace the central premise of Fletcher's tutelage; that the path to excellence is a brutal gauntlet of vitriol and violence.  Fear is Fletcher's principal tool, and fear seems to be the guiding spirit of the movie.  Chazelle appears afraid of boring his audience with a movie about jazz, or about excellence, or whatever he believes his subject to be.  So he orchestrates a series of brutal set pieces, reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket but lacking in the irony, symbolism, or psychological insight of Kubrick's film.  He's not technically inept; like Andrew, he can use the tools, and the final scene builds, by dint of malevolence and absurdity, into the tension one might find in a slasher pic - effective, as far as it goes.  But it's a dry, mechanical effect, the capstone to a flimsy structure. 

All of this might be partially forgiven if Chazelle were to fully own the film as a kind of neo-mythological battle of the wills.   It would be no less odious in its Randian admiration for power, but it would at least not have to clothe its retrograde simplicity in the realm of artistic creation.  It is, after all, an extended face-off between two stubborn and borderline sociopathic creeps.  But Chazelle decided to paint this cage fight in the exalted hues of art, thus fulfilling the fundamental precepts of pretension.  Had it remained unadorned, it would've at least been interesting.  As it stands, with perfunctory nods towards psychology and studied style, it just becomes boring.  Chazelle doesn't seem to understand music, much less jazz, but even worse, he doesn't evince much insight into people. 

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