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Screenings and Meanings

Films tell of musical journeys that test the soul

By Gerald Schmitz

10/29/2014
Gerald Schmitz

Whiplash (U.S. 2014)

Rudderless (U.S. 2014)

The stories of musicians and musical groups have become prime movie subjects in recent years, inspiring both dramas and documentaries. A good example is the turbulent life and career of singer James Brown known as “Soul Brother Number One” and the “Godfather of Soul” who earned a reputation as “the hardest-working man in show business.” He’s well played by Chad Boseman in Tate Taylor’s biopic Get on Up released in August. Forthcoming is a lengthy feature on Brown from prominent documentarian Alex Gibney that was screened as a work in progress at the Tribeca festival in April.

In release this month are two dramas that premiered at Sundance in January and that represent the very best of the genre. Neither is based on any actual artists. Both feature outstanding feats of musicianship by the principal actors.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto film festival last month, wowed audiences at Sundance taking both the grand jury and audience awards. The story centres on 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a promising student drummer at New York’s Schaffer Conservatory of Music who catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher who also conducts the school’s jazz orchestra. The movie’s title comes from a jazz piece they practise obsessively to perform in competition.

To say that Fletcher is a domineering taskmaster is understatement. After he offers Andrew a possible place in the ensemble he proceeds to literally terrorize him into submission. A session with Fletcher is an ordeal of taunts and abuse. He hurls obscenities at any mistake no matter how minor. He demands perfection and total commitment and acts as if driving students to the breaking point is the only way to achieve this.

JURY PRIZE — Writer-director Damien Chazelle accepts grand jury prize for Whiplash at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 25, 2014. (Schmitz photo)

Andrew perseveres because he wants to become the best and earn the approval of his teacher. He’s also a sensitive and shy young man whose mother left when he was just a baby. He gets along well with his father (Paul Reiser), an undistinguished musician. He’s interested in a girl named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works in a theatre. He’s constantly torn between the commands of Fletcher, practising until his fingers bleed, and retaining the ability to have a normal social life. Does he have to give that up to become great?

Eventually the pitiless Fletcher pushes him too far by pitting him in a ruthless contest against another band prospect. The episode leads to traumatic scenes in which Andrew is driven to assault Fletcher. After Andrew reports the repeated pattern of abuse to school authorities Fletcher is dismissed from his position. Later, when Andrew encounters him playing piano in a bar, Fletcher accosts him: “I knew it was you.” But they talk and Fletcher even seems to show a human side, relating his dismay over a former student who committed suicide. He then proposes that Andrew join a band he has formed.


Sundance 2014 logo

Nice guy that he is, Andrew agrees, trusting in a reconciliation. In fact it’s a ruse by Fletcher to get revenge in the form of a public humiliation. This is the moment that Andrew rises to the challenge and turns the tables leading to a thrilling percussive climax in which he plays the drums as if possessed. It’s a stunning virtuoso performance that brings down the house; perhaps this is what the Machiavellian Fletcher wanted to draw from him?

Simmons delivers the role of his career as Fletcher. Teller, who earned plaudits for the 2013 feature The Spectacular Now, is exceptional too, deserving of several drum rolls. It makes up for taking forgettable parts in subpar young-adult rom-coms like That Awkward Moment and Two Night Stand. He’s a very impressive actor to watch.

***

William H. Macy’s fine directorial debut Rudderless also played Sundance to a standing ovation. The central character is Sam (Billy Crudup), a hotshot advertising executive in Oklahoma who is called away one day to confront a parent’s worst nightmare. His son Josh, a talented musician, a student a Central Plains University, has been killed in a campus shooting; in fact the reality is even more terrible. Sam and Josh’s girlfriend Kate (Selena Gomez) are devastated.

FILM TALK — Actor-director William H. Macy speaks about Rudderless at Sundance on Jan. 24, 2014. (Schmitz photo)

Sam in particular is hounded by reporters and begins a steady downward spiral, hitting the bottle and becoming reclusive as if hiding out from everyone including his ex-wife Emily (played by Macy’s wife Felicity Huffman) who also grieves the tragic loss of their son. Several years later he’s living on a houseboat and taking odd jobs as a house painter and construction worker. But then, in the course of getting rid of most of Josh’s stuff, he holds on to his guitar and some CDs he discovers that were made by Josh singing his own haunting original songs.

Sam, who once played guitar himself, finds them to be a revelation. Almost as a form of therapy and remembrance he learns to play them. One evening at a bar he signs up for an open mike under a made-up name. Playing several of his son’s songs as if they are his own, the music strikes a chord especially with an aspiring young musician, Quentin (Anton Yelchin), who latches on to him like a fellow lost soul. Sam is encouraged to continue by the club owner (played by Macy himself) and he forges a growing bond with Quentin. With several others they form a garage band good enough to get gigs.

Their growing success using unacknowledged material is built on a lie. Sam has never really come to terms with how Josh died (he refused Emily’s entreaties to meet with other grieving parents), so when the truth about the songs’ origin is exposed, the fallout is intense. It’s hurtful for Kate who changed her name and quit school, unable to forgive Josh. It’s also hard for Quentin to deal with the dissolution of a sought-after musical partnership as the band folds because playing these songs is wrong.

Sam lashes out at first but eventually, helped out by understanding record-store owner Del (Laurence Fishburne), he finds a way to be reconciled with what has happened and begin to heal from the trauma of his son’s death. He turns over Josh’s music to Emily. He reaches out to Quentin, urging him not to give up on musical pursuits. And he finds the courage to go up on stage to perform a confessional last song that just might allow him to move forward with his life.

As in Whiplash, the acting and the music are amazing. Maybe not soul music, but musical journeys that both test and touch the soul.

When war and terror strike Canada’s capital

In light of war drums beating in the daily news and the unprecedented terror attacks that took place in and around the Canadian Parliament and War Memorial a week ago, it’s hard to ignore that the current big Hollywood release, writer-director David Ayer’s Fury, is an old-fashioned Second World War epic that focuses on ordinary citizen soldiers in a murderous confrontation with radical evil. The title comes from the name given to a Sherman tank commanded by a hardened German-speaking American officer nicknamed “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt) operating inside the Reich in April 1945. He can be a merciless killer, setting up the movie’s most gut-wrenching moment. Unsparing scenes of savagery are barely relieved by crude talk and conduct among a loyal crew that includes a terrified newcomer whose conscience is tested in a baptism of fire.

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “good” war. But there are times when war against a great evil may be a necessary lesser evil. It’s hard to imagine today’s North Americans having the stomach for the kind of hellish ground warfare depicted in Fury. The horrors of war have always been visited on faraway places. When its consequences hit too close to home, what will be our answer?