I walked away from this movie with a host of emotions and thoughts swirling around in my brain, so in one way this movie was an undeniable success. The story, acting and music are all top notch and deserving of praise. That being said, at the end of the day, my visceral reaction to the core message of the movie makes me never want to watch or think about this movie again. At its core, this movie is monstrous.
Andrew is a young jazz student at a very prestigious music school in New York City. Famous and successful conductor Terence plucks him from class one day to be in his prestigious and successful band. There, Andrew and we the audience discover that Terence is highly abusive and routinely terrorizes and berates his students. He throws chairs and slaps Andrew on the first day, as well as playing mind games with his terrified students. Andrew responds to all of this by committing himself to his craft even more so; breaking up with his girlfriend and practicing till his fingers are raw. A series of terrible events enacted by Terrence leads to Andrew getting expelled and Terrence getting fired. The movie ends with Terrence tricking Andrew back on stage during a festival where he seeks to embarrass the younger man and ruin his music career. Andrew turns the tables by giving the performance of his life and they somehow reach an accord and reconcile, Andrew having finally made his teacher happy.
Lets talk about the more straightforward aspects of this film first. The acting is absolutely breathtaking. J.K. Simmons is stunning as Terence. He switches between friendly and open to absolutely monstrous within seconds and with no warning. Simmons makes everything else about this film better; when he walks into a scene, and he is most of them, everything feels heightened and on edge. His presence rolls into the audience like a tidal wave. You feel your butt clench and your blood start to pump because you know the success of Andrew’s ambitions rests on the shoulders of a tyrannical and mercurial man who will punch you as much as he will aid you in any way. Terence is not a man, not a conductor of a band or teacher of students; he is a monster and Simmons portrays that extremely well.
Miles Teller is a younger actor that I’ve liked for quite sometime (he is extremely charming in the Footloose remake). While not as flashy as Simmons, he brings the heat and ambition of the kind of young musician that a conductor like Terence would be attracted to. He practices endlessly and all he thinks about is drumming and becoming a better drummer. He alienates his family and he breaks up with his girlfriend not because she is getting in the way of his music, but because he thinks that she will eventually. Even though Andrew, his character, is ultimately the victim of Terrance’s abuse, Teller does a great job of making us believe that they somehow deserve each other, that what Terrance puts his students through is somehow effective and worth it.
I enjoy music quite a bit, but I don’t pretend to understand it beyond a surface or emotional level. I know when I like music and I love the emotional response it can garner in me. This movie is about music and the music in the film is great. Jazz music fits the story this movie is trying to tell extremely well. The building and ramping up of the drums helps build the tension in several scenes and makes the audience all the more tense and on edge. The final scene, where Andrew transcends anything he had ever done before is brilliantly shot and scored. Watching and hearing the drums speed up and slow down keeps you on the edge of your seat and desperate to know what happens next. Without such great music and scoring, this movie loses a lot of its tension and momentum.
So look, go see this movie, it’s well done and very entertaining. That being said, I had one of the strongest moments of disgust and horror at the movies end that I have ever had. The movie seems to be advocating for the way Terence acts and treats his students. In the end, what he did to Miles seems absolutely worth it and I’m sure that if we could ask Miles, he would agree. We are supposed to accept that the price of greatness, the price of musical success is constant fear and torment. And that is a terrible idea. I’m all for stern taskmasters, I’ve had them many times over the years and I’ve seen their benefit but this movie takes that idea so much farther; by the end of the movie, Terence has spiraled into a malicious trickster who ambushes a young man on stage because that young man was willing to stand up to him. And then Miles all but thanks him for it! It’s absurd. I do not agree with the notion that bullies somehow make us better people and that we should then go around thanking them.
Despite all of that, you should really see this movie; it’s captivating and dark and weirdly cathartic; Miles doesn’t owe Terence a damn thing, but watching him get over on his tormentor is very satisfying to watch. Miles may be a deeply flawed man, but I still found myself liking him and wanting him to win out in the end. The music and acting is all top notch and the non-stop tension builds and builds in a very satisfying way. We can argue about what the movie is trying to say about music and art and sacrifice, but just the fact that I had such a strong negative reaction to it should tell you how much this movie affected me.
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Next Book: Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf by R.A. Salvatore