© 2017 by James Clark
The young but extremely formidable filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, merits, I believe, special attention for his bringing to the fore in virtuoso style the question of art production in contemporary life. He does so, not from the perspective of pedantic ideology, but from the carnal immediacy of figures pursuing objectives intuitively shallow and vile. The weight of history, appearing to condone and promote such virulent heroics, comes to bear in such a way that it is our protagonists’ injuries which hold us in thrall and, as such, link to an extensive cinematic endeavor (now central to these studies) of a lone wolf in mortal combat with a large pack.
Impressively enriching this imbroglio of tradition, in our film today, is the factor that both jazz-drum student, Andrew Neiman, and jazz-band teacher, Terrence Fletcher, have, variously, assimilated in their sensuous careers—formal and informal—that the world needs shaking up and jazz music is the air force to do the job. This is no over-done, Bach-first avowal like the one cemented to an antiquated French idiom, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles; but nevertheless, that air force experiences acute engine trouble.
Let’s begin to approach this turbulence by getting a bead on the startling Marine boot-camp Fletcher has been allowed, for many years, to maintain within a prestigious New York City music school (the Shaffer Conservatory). In the course of the expert’s discharging his role of Department Head of the Jazz Faculty, he recruits the precocious freshman, Andrew, to the Senior Big Band. His mentoring includes an instance of expressing reproof toward the youngest hopeful, in this way: “Is that the fastest you can play? You worthless Hymie fuck! No wonder Mommy ran out on [writer/ schoolteacher] Daddy when she figured out he wasn’t Eugene O’Neil…If you deliberately sabotage my band I will fuck you like a pig! You are a worthless faggot little piece of shit!” The Department Head, in this and many other indiscretions, sends us reeling from his sense of entitlement to, on one hand, demolish in youngsters their candid musical endeavor and its mystery. In addition, during many instances of rehearsing that elite squad designed to shock and awe the best which other such ensembles can field, his leadership amounts to honing, for the sake of metronomic, sonic bullets, diamond-sharp tempo and tone. In that methodology, we soon discover the overarching priority upon exposing and punishing his galley slaves as lacking the fibre to be one of those musical icons abandoned and thereby imperilled while at the same time a presumed killing rejoinder to a dominant world history he has come to loathe. The actor, J.K. Simmons, depicting the Head, resembles a grim, ascetic priest channelling a principal of the Spanish Inquisition. There is an episode in one of the nocturnal, management-absent rehearsals when Fletcher’s claw-like hand-gesture demands a halt and he claims to hear that someone is off-key. He decrees that the culprit confess within 10 seconds. No one comes forward. The hunter confronts several players in a solo passage and nothing seems amiss. He derides the assembly with the axiom that not realising one is off-key is even worse than simply slipping. Then he makes his way into the face of a trombone-player he refers to as “Elmer Fudd.” The whip claims to know that Fudd is the travesty. The shy and terrified boy looks down to his feet during this confrontation and says nothing. That earns him being noisily and insultingly thrown out of the band in not maintaining he was faultless—after his departure, the leader telling the slaves (as if an increase in his supposed fascinating unpredictableness) he knew the ex was not to blame (pinpointing a far more handsome kid as in error and going unpunished because the lack of a killer instinct was the crime he chose to punish that day).
Unsurprisingly, that martinet, so preoccupied with his version of the right stuff, proves to be a bathetic cornball, his sharp Big-Apple bluster notwithstanding. He commences one rehearsal by playing a CD of an alumnus who had made it into the Wynton Marsalis Lincoln Centre Big Band and had died the day before. Teary and self-serving as it was, his treacly homage neglects (what we learn later) that the young pro had committed suicide along a trajectory of stress and depression stemming from the days of the highly-rated Shaffer band. (In a prelude to another college festival win, leaving the personnel far more depressed than delighted, we see the alarming educator chatting with a young man and his little daughter. Fletcher is amazingly cordial, and no wonder—the spectator being no doubt the titular and rarely seen overseer of the musical aspect of the Shaffer family’s wide menu of philanthropic activities.) Perceiving an error in Andrew’s playing (an event whereby the freshman is sadistically pitted against two other hopefuls) Fletcher throws a chair at him. This gesture—no doubt a staple through the tense years—has a connection to another of the tyrant’s nostalgic preferences, namely, the maturation of sax legend, Charlie Parker, as launched by an irate drummer, Joe Jones, flinging a cymbal at his head for dereliction of duty, whereby the slouch transforms himself into a marvel, by dint of a year of hard, solitary work. The producer of thoroughbreds takes as an article of dogmatic piety that three hundred years from now the name Charlie Parker won’t be as meaningless as the name Joe Blow.
But, in that latter indulgence, Fletcher, for once, is on the same page as Andrew and the rest of the so-called elites. Galvanized by certainty that he can show the way to a Holy Grail of being noticed by those who put careers in place and confirm a sort of immortality, the young players allow themselves to be savaged by not merely a psychopath but a leader who knows and cares nothing about jazz and music per se. The few chances the toilers get to present to us a sustained passage of instrumentation reveal tight-ass precision on the order of a marching band. (There is a wicked little moment when they sound like being at half-time on Friday night.) It is massively perverse to conduct jazz study exclusively in the form of large ensembles, which tends to display the most antiquated instances of the genre. The crest of jazz disclosure comprises small groups—trios, quartets and the like—whereby bass and drums propulsion would maintain a flow of uncanny ripple from out of which piano or sax or trumpet or other soloists could improvise melodic variants circulating outward and at the same time being pulled back into the rhythm section, from which to flourish forward again (often harmonically, in the company of another soloist) to a sense of innovation meeting the viewer’s (and the player’s) need for discovery. Early on, Andrew meets up with his father, a public-school teacher, at a movie theatre on variegated 8th Street and nearby—the drummer’s walk there being a brief play of contrasting optical and cool jazz motifs. They have a big tub of popcorn, and Andrew adds a bag of raisins to it. His father reminds him not to forget the sweeter factors having been poured at the middle of the container. “I just eat around them,” is the musician’s rejoinder. “I don’t understand you,” is the basic trainer’s position. Just digging into a larger void is precisely the main role of a jazz drummer (as supplemented by an occasional solo both emphasizing the rhythmic powers and priming further improvisation from the “sweets”). Although his dad misses the point of Andrew’s instinctive musicality, now being permanently squelched, he does pick up a lack of satisfying enthusiasm, and wants him to realize, “You’ve got plenty of options…” “Options?” the boy asks in a whisper, now being overwhelmed by a one-tracked careerism which blights the feast of options at the heart of jazz. “Just… just life…” his father had tried to get across as the real creative field.
But at a family dinner, probably during the Thanksgiving break, we see how compelling the martial atmosphere (far from thanksgiving) has become to him, despite a training experience where he is slapped repeatedly for “rushing” and then “dragging;” and then, with the advent of a tear of incredulity that his aspiration could become so nightmarish, becoming subjected (in front of the whole band) with, “Are you one of those single tear people…Do I look like a double fucking rainbow?” Andrew has two brothers—one an MVP college football wiz; the other participating in a model UN event. They are embraced by the elders with, severally, “Tom Brady!” and “… soon to be Rhodes Scholar!” No such directed fluency is meted out to Andrew, and he feels slighted as a result. (“So, how’s the drumming going, Andy?” Also feted is Jim, his father, for being “Teacher of the Year.”) Feeling compelled to blow his own horn, Andrew becomes strident and far from convincing (not even to himself) that he is on top of the world (being quite a different thing than diminishing others). “It’s going really, really well. I’m part of the Shaffer jazz orchestra, which means the best in the country.” The MVP suggests that that distinction is based on “subjective perceptions;” and our protagonist bristles with a sharp, “No.” (Coinciding with the ways of the bottom-line Patriots being a dubious approach to the primordial logic of music; however, I would not be quick to discount musical magic in one of their games I saw recently.) An uncle, far less discreet and tolerant than Jim, poses the obvious problem, “Does the studio get you a job?” On Andrew’s admitting how contingent his situation is, the skeptic (and in fact deadly enemy, who helps us see part of what’s behind Fletcher’s nocturnal scorched-earth campaign) sneers, “I’m so glad you’ve figured it out. It’s a nasty business, I’m sure…” [if effectively pressed, this loved one would aver that reflection is a “nasty business”]. The spotlight swings back to the MVP, and Andrew, losing what little equilibrium he has, says, “It’s Division Three.” From there, the soon-to-be-very-distant-uncle asks, “Got any friends, Andrew?” The latter fires back, “I never really saw the point…” The other students are quick to cite the friendship of Lennon and McCartney, which, fuel to the fire, elicits from the jazzman, “Charley Parker didn’t know anybody…” The blitzing linebacker, having done some gratifying homework, listens to the boy’s indiscretion, “I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success,” and goes for blood with, “Dying broke, drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.” Overt hatred now raging, Andrew sneers, “I’d rather die broke, drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 than hear people at the dinner table talk about living to be rich at 90 and no one remembers them…” The uncle posts the dig that his two normal nephews have plenty of friends. Andrew counters with the faint praise, “I’m sure they’ll make great school board presidents” [Fletcher, on first encountering Andrew and seemingly asking the benign question of what his father does and finding he’s a teacher, asks as a matter of course, “What college does he teach at?”]. The college body-contact specialist, dipping into Fletcher’s territory, taunts, “Think you’re better than us? Come play in one of our practices…” Before leaving any such dinner forever, Andrew replies, “You’ll never hear from the NFL!”
Andrew does, in fact, hear from his version of the NFL. He had bulked up enough of Fletcher’s venom to one day assault him, participate incognito in the dishonorable discharge of the Marine Drill Sergeant (relating to that suicide), and then, after a stint in a fast-food restaurant, reunite with the now free-lance ranger amidst the still-numerous jazz clubs in Manhattan which could give the impression that career glories are there for the taking. The two adversaries seeing eye-to-eye on producing an incandescent moment being a ticket to the so-called Big Leagues, hit the stage at the JVC Jazz Festival and Andrew—after being sabotaged by the same old terrorist in the first number and staggering off the stage; comforted by Jim; and then going back to the drum kit—reels off a long, showy and technically brilliant solo, becoming an overnight sensation. Which means?
Which means the running on near empty has come to a pass where Jim’s, “You’ve got plenty of options,’ assembles itself in such a way that the Division Three fixations are put in their place for the sake of a Big League at the heart of musical dynamics. The fervid concern for a sonic absolute almost obliterates the reality that we are in the hands of a filmmaker (albeit a filmmaker who has logged many hours in music classes). As such we are confronted with a cinematic option (on the order of that rare resort to the popcorn tub and its two dimensions) beyond the many drum-kits. Producing the popcorn is a young girl, Nicole, whom Andrew—having frequented the place as also Jim’s way of keeping tabs on his son’s dangerous journey about which he perhaps has a better sense of its pitfalls—asks for a date. “I’ve seen you many times… You’re very pretty…Would you wanna go out with me? Ever?” In a narrative almost entirely devoted to words becoming blades, this juncture represents an astronomical departure. Nicole, clearly far more at home with romance than he, pulls out of the air the perfunctory demand, “Go away!” But immediately more clarification is provided. Andrew, solemn and flustered, says, “Oh, my God, I’m sorry!” And then she laughs, the only laughing matter in the film. She tells him, “I’m just messing with you…” and though he politely retorts, “It’s actually pretty mean,” a date for pizza is quickly arranged. This flow of cinematic charm has been expertly grafted to the moment when Lola, the taxi-dancer (who has a long-term absentee lover and father of her child and accommodates many surrogates with a mixture of pleasure and melancholy), in Jacques Demy’s film, Lola (1960), begins an ambivalent and brief attachment to Roland, a passionate admirer lacking confidence and direction. Thereby, the deadly momentum of Whiplash has been infiltrated by a subtle, a gentle and a humorous creativity. In marked contrast to Andrew’s situation, Lola rehearses a song about herself, for the sake of freshening up her marketing at the club, which does not involve worrying about imperfections; and with this we have music continuous with her wider actions—tentative, delightful and bringing to bear a creative cogency.
Chazelle gives us several scenes pertaining to the plentiful options so desperately needed. The film we hear buzzing in the background while Andrew chooses the fibre over the sweet is Jules Dassin’s Rififi(1955), about an intense, meticulous theft of jewels, their hard-edge literalness and sociopathic concomitants coinciding with our death march here. The hard-edge drumming by Andrew which opens the film has been framed from along a corridor of windows, resembling a very early shopping mall, and resembling, in fact, the ancient shopping mall in Nantes where Nicole-like Lola meets Andrew-like Roland Cassard and a dinner date is planned. In a reversal of the unreliable figure elicited by Nicole’s jest (Lola’s dream lover, named Michel, seen in Lola in a white Stetson and white Cadillac and being on the horizon) who leads to Roland’s dream of leading a life with the dancer being shattered by the single mom almost relenting but gently dumping him when the man in white shows up, it is Andrew (dumping Nicole, and not gently but insultingly, as an albatross) dedicating all his time to fulfilling his dreams of Something Big (Michel being a parody of private-eye, Mike Hammer in the 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly, whose keyword is “Something Big”). Roland goes on to a career of diamond smuggling—the headquarters being a hair salon in that old mall—and then (as seen in Demy’s, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ) rising to diamond dealer with a trophy wife and no musical topspin, no range of interplay.
The incursion of Nicole has introduced to the diamond-hard, diamond-cold drama a warm pliability with which to countenance the train-wreck of Andrew’s failure to engage the magic of musical sensibility. The uniqueness of Lola’s world poses something far from idyllic. But its instinctive playfulness, its mastery of the baseline holding its statements to an embrace of restraint, carries with it a tensile strength which Fletcher and Andrew have shied away from.
The closing juggernaut scene at Carnegie Hall should, but seldom will be taken to heart as proof against the hard-headed confusion being melodramatically fabulous—a “triumph” of industrial-strength ruthlessness in the workplace being the phenomenon that gets thing done and makes the world go round. Fletcher, being the rabid and very clever opportunist he so obviously is, on that chance reuniting with Andrew turns on the charm-valve previously seen with the source of funding. The flattering invitation to sit in on the gig does not fail. Nor does the first number’s shot of a never-heard premiere/ nightmare, capped off with the ex-teacher getting in the ex-student’s face and shooting off the surprise, “I knew it was you” [leading to the dismissal]. On returning to the stage, loudly interrupting by means of a machine-gun cadence and taking over the show, commanding the other players to give their all to his selection(being “Caravan”—the wild and the wonderful presumably understood), he soon gets down to entirely hogging the spotlight with a protracted, technically and emotively risky solo. At first Fletcher is unsure of what his next move should be; but, seized by Andrew’s golden production, he concludes that a Charlie-Parker-like epiphany was at hand and, being a religionist of such moments, he becomes both a parishioner and a rattlesnake ready to mine the career power-surge filling an august site of artistry more in common with Nicole (who, on being dismissed, Fletcher-style, asks, “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”) and with Jim (who, seeing his son making a grotesque spectacle of himself, sees a death in the family). As the big/little drive winds down, Fletcher and Andrew enjoy eye-contact and the promise of cutting each other up in the course of (perhaps) profitable years to come. Fletcher had, in his Cassard-like (a Cassard beinga presenter of legal cases) successful seducing of naïve and vain Andrew at the club where the latter bumped into him, used the rhetorical bon-bon, “a good job,” as the lowest sinking to infamy. But there they are onstage, and pissing their pants at the prospect of good jobs. In Lola, there is a wide range of aspirations to good jobs. There is also, amongst the various casts of characters, craftsmanship of the gut which comprises that creative dynamic which could be called music,