The assortment of films nominated for best picture this year is really quite amazing. And it comes as something of a surprise that one of those films is a jazz film about a young drummer played by Miles Teller, co-starring J.K.Simmons (of Farmer’s Insurance commericial fame) as the abusive teacher. Considering that only about 3% of the record sales market is jazz of any sort, it was something of a gamble to make a film about this subject. Set in N.Y., it focuses on the experience of going to a major conservatory and learning one’s craft. The thing about going to Julliard or the New England Conservatory is that you already have to be a ‘player’ you already have to have some chops just to be admitted to that sort of school. And then suddenly it becomes a very intimidating experience, made worse when you have an instructor is a deliberate intimidator and is verbally abusive. Yes, there is a lot of ‘blue’ language in this film, as my father used to call it. The movie is in your face, and very intense for its full one hour and 46 minutes.
One of the premises of this movie is that you have to have enough internal drive and perseverance to make it in a profession like this. You have to want so bad you can taste it, and Andrew Neyman does want it, and is willing to put up with a lot to get it too. The title of the movie comes from a jazz song title, and the film does actually feature a couple of jazz standards played in big band style for instance Caravan. Perhaps one of the amazing things about the film is that Miles Teller is in fact a very good drummer, and needs no stunt doubles in the role. This in itself is something of a revelation.
Growing up in music I learned pretty quickly that if one wants to be good at something like this, it requires lots of practice and dedication. It’s either full bore or no bore if you want to be good enough to be a professional musician. At one point one sees a poster in the film which says ‘Players who can’t hack it in jazz become rock musicians’. That’s about right. Jazz musicians actually read music, unlike many rock and country and hip hop and rap musicians. Jazz musicians are mostly trained musicians like classical musicians. They are not just mucking about, and getting lucky. So if one wants to do jazz, one has to make a choice at some point whether you want to dedicate your life to this music you love, or just make it a hobby. And if it is the former, you accept that you are not going to get rich, not going live the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and probably not get much in the way of positive affirmative along the way.
One of the things I really liked about this film is that Andrew has a good loving father, who is supportive of him, even if he doesn’t understand the obsession with music. They go to movies together and talk. Terrence Fletcher on the other had is anything but warm and cuddly. He’s in your face and you can tell everyone is intimidated from the minute he walks in the room. A surrogate father figure he is not. The movie is filled with striving, failing, anxiety, panic, and moments of transcendence as well. If you are looking for a film that will disabuse you of a romantic or glamorous view of a career in music, this is it. If you are also a ‘one shining moment’ kind of movie watcher, then this is your movie as well. It deserves some awards, but not because the two central characters are likable persons. Real person, yes. Likable, not so much.