Tag Archives: jazz

Movie Review: Whiplash

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on Miles Teller in Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons plays a jazz instructor inflicting tyrannical teaching methods on a drumming student played by Miles Teller in Whiplash.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful that good job.

One of the year’s biggest surprises has to be Whiplash. You think a movie about a jazz drumming student and his teacher wouldn’t be one to win people over but you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Andrew Neiman is a 19 year-old jazz drummer who has been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory to pursue his dream of being one of the greats like Buddy Rich.  Despite practicing long hours, he does take time to take things easy watching movies with his father and even dating the girl working at concessions.

That all changes one day when during class, instructor Terence Fletcher who already has an infamous reputation among students substitutes for one instructor. It’s more than instruction as Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate for the school band he conducts. Sure enough, Andrew catches his eye. Actually Andrew caught his eye days before while practicing alone.

On the first session, Neiman learns that part of Fletcher’s rehearsal methods is manipulating emotions out of his students. It is while rehearsing the Hank Levy song ‘Whiplash’ that Fletcher makes Andrew his target of attacks including berating him verbally especially when Andrew is brought to tears, throwing a chair at him and even slapping him for going off tempo. The rehearsal ends with Andrew being the alternate drummer and relegated to page turner for the lead drummer.

Instead of quitting, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher and master ‘Whiplash.’ He listens intensely to its drumline and studies videoclips of the drummers. He even cuts his movie time with his father and breaks up with Nicole to intensely pursue his ambition. Then bad luck happens during a competition when Andrew misplaces the drummer’s sheet music. However Andrew is determined to perform ‘Whiplash’ without the notes. To the astonishment of all including Fletcher, he does it perfectly and becomes Fletcher’s new lead drummer.

However it’s short-lived as Ryan a drummer from Fletcher’s former class, is promoted to lead drummer. Andrew is frustrated to the point he confronts Fletcher only to learn Fletcher decides who has earned the part. That only drives Andrew to practice intensely to the point his hands bleed. Just before Fletcher starts rehearsal one day in tears, he reveals to all that one of his former students from six years ago Sean Casey, whom he describes as a ‘marvelous musician,’ died in a car accident. He starts rehearsal on ‘Caravan’, the next competition piece, but has a hard time picking out the right drummer for the song. Fletcher gets all three drummers including Andrew continually trying out the piece for several brutal hours until he makes his final decision at 2:30 am. He decides it to be Andrew.

Andrew buses to the competition but the bus suffers a flat tire. Andrew’s determined to be there on time to the point he rents a car but forgets his drumsticks at the rental office. Andrew only finds that out once he arrives and Fletcher dismisses him for not having his drumsticks. Determined to play, Andrew rushed back to the agency to get the sticks. Speeding to the concert hall and talking to Fletcher on his phone, Andrew is hit by a car. Despite the car flipping over and Andrew bloody and injured, Andrew rushes to the hall to play. A stunned Fletcher lets him play but it’s obvious Andrew is off as his injuries cause him to drop his drumsticks continuously. Fletcher gives him the words onstage: “You’re finished.” That causes Andrew to attack Fletcher onstage in front of the audience.

The attack caused Andrew to get expelled form the school. Soon Andrew learns from the lawyer of Sean Casey’s parents that Casey actually committed suicide and believes it was because of the personal torment endured by Fletcher’s teaching methods right from when he first started. Andrew agrees to testify, leading Fletcher to be dismissed from the school. Just when it seemed to be all over for Andrew, he learns months later Fletcher is performing in a club. Andrew and Fletcher meet up again and it’s during a drink together that Andrew learns why Fletcher teaches the way he does. Because he drives his students to be the next jazz great. And he saw it in Andrew more than the other two. Fletcher agrees to have Andrew as part of the band he’s conducting for the upcoming JVC festival where they will be playing the same songs. Andrew agrees. However things do not go as planned as Fletcher tells Andrew he knew he got him out. On top of it, the band opens with a piece Andrew never rehearsed. This leads to an ending that’s unpredictable and entertaining.

One can simply say it’s a story about a student with the drive and the teacher determined to make him succeed no matter how soul-crushing his teaching methods. I myself saw a lot more to it. I see it as about music and arts in general. We see and hear a lot of great pieces of music, great acting performances and great pieces of art. One thing we don’t often see is that it takes everything out of a person, especially their heart and soul. We also see that here in teaching as Fletcher verbally beats his students into the ground to bring out the best in them. He feels he’s doing the right thing even as he was blamed for Sean Casey’s suicide. He even brings up the example of Charlie Parker who was a substandard saxophone player until his bandleader threw a cymbal at his head. That was the turning point. I myself have taken acting courses and there have been times in which I was encouraged to dig deep into my soul even to the point of remembering some of the more upsetting moments of my life. It’s not uncommon for teacher sin the art to be that tyrannical to their students to bring out the best in them.

It’s not just about a teacher putting his students through such agonizing torturous methods to better his students and bring the best out of them. It’s also about the drive of a student. Andrew is determined to be the best drummer ever. In his mind, he thinks it’s better to be a success even if it means dying in his 30’s and having no friends than it is to be not so successful but live a long life and be beloved. Andrew is willing to practice drumming until his hands bleed, willing to give up his girlfriend and even determined to make a competition even if he’s in a car accident and the car flips over. The crazy thing is that there are a lot of people in the arts that feel that same way. That success in their art is better than being loved and even worth dying for. We see that in Andrew.

Even there, it’s not just about the teacher and about the student, it’s the relationship between the two. Fletcher can be brutal and abusive both verbally and physically but he pushes Andrew because he sees a quality in him he has not seen in a student before. Andrew is driven to succeed but he sees something in Fletcher’s tutelage that he feels he can’t get anywhere else. He senses Fletcher and only Fletcher can help him to be the best jazz drummer ever. And he’s willing to take it on even with the physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Even after both Andrew and Fletcher are both dismissed from Shaffer, Andrew still relies on Fletcher’s judgment on his abilities. Often Fletcher’s teaching and pushing Andrew can remind a lot of people of sports coaches who are that tough on their athletes but are determined to bring out the best in them. Andrew willing to endure it all to be the great he wants to be will remind you of athletes who wholeheartedly trust their coach to the point that they’ll willing to do illegal things like steroids upon their urging.

Without a doubt, J.K. Simmons owned the movie. His portrayal of Fletcher determined to bring out the best in his students even if it requires him to deliver physical or verbal abuse stole the movie. His focus on perfectionism, his love for jazz music and the greats, his portrayal of that kind of teacher will keep you glued to your seat. Even though Simmons owned the film, credit should be given to Miles Teller. He as well delivered an excellent performance of a student with a dream and determined to succeed even if it means taking physical abuse from a teacher. He also did an excellent job of showing how Andrew’s determination to succeed almost destroys him at times. Miles himself also drummed as a kid so it’s kind of natural he was chosen. Plus if director Damien Chazelle was interested in making his film bankable, he could have chosen Nick Jonas as Andrew. Miles was one who could both drum and act.

The film is actually the brainchild of director/writer Damien Chazelle. Chazelle wanted to become a successful jazz drummer in high school. He was in a very competitive jazz band in high school and had an intense music teacher who would become the inspiration of Terence Fletcher. However unlike Andrew, Chazelle knew he wasn’t good enough to excel in jazz drumming and turned to film making instead. You could rightfully call this film his baby. This film has won the Sundance Audience and Jury Award for Best Drama and the reception has been excellent.

 Whiplash is as much about the punishing training and studying music students go through to pursue their dreams as it is about the determined teacher, the driven student and the turbulent but solid chemistry between the two. It will also remind all you young ones with musical dreams that if you think chasing your musical dreams is a cakewalk, you couldn’t be wronger.

VIFF 2013 Review: Felix

Hlayani Junior Mabasa (right) plays Felix, A South African boy with jazz dreams.

Hlayani Junior Mabasa (right) plays Felix, A South African boy with jazz dreams.

The last film I saw from the Vancouver Film Festival repeats was Felix. Felix is an entertaining movie of a South African boy with musical talents. How entertaining is it?

Felix Xaba is a 13 year-old Zulu boy gifted in music as he’s an expert at the pennywhistle. He lives in a Zulu area of Cape Town. His mother Lindiwe or ‘Lindy’ wants her children to have the success she never had so she is able to get Felix accepted into an exclusive all-boys prep school. This comes thanks to the help of Mr. Soames: a rich white man whom Lindy is his maid and is a former graduate of that school. Fitting in is not that easy especially since there is a lot of elitist attitudes amongst some of the richer boys of his classrom, especially Junior whom he ranks Felix as NOCD: ‘Not Our Class Dear.’ A punch from Junior during rugby practice leaves Felix with a bad first day. Further ostracism is felt days later when Felix is mocked for his green bag.

Felix does find his way. He does make friends with the big but shy Ricardo and the awkwardly friendly and goofy Samuel. They’re frequently at odds with the ‘elite’ clique of Junior, Marshall and Rocky. Felix wants to make the school’s jazz ensemble but can’t with the pennywhistle. Jazz music however is discouraged by his mother. She calls it the ‘Devil’s Music’ and believes if Felix pursues it, he will be like his late father, whom she refers to as ‘useless’ in front of her children but secretly still loves him. The children soon learn Lindy still loved their father when they come across the ‘evil chest.’ They learn it’s not evil at all. In fact it has memories of their father: various pictures, magazine articles of him and his band the Bossa Boys and even his own saxophone which Felix tries to play to make the jazz ensemble.

Felix tries to re-audition for the jazz band. During the wait, he finds help in learning to play the saxophone from Bra Joe, a former member of the Bossa Boys. All lessons have to be secret because he knows his mother will get angry at him for learning jazz and has a certain hatred to Bra Joe. Actually Lindy has a reputation of being the village snob. The one place where she is friendly is with her church choir. Through Bra Joe, Felix is able to learn to play the saxophone, learn sheet music and learn about his late father.

Everything turns upside down when Lindy learns Felix went into the chest and took the saxophone. She then pawns the saxophone. To get it back, the Bossa Boys hold a reunion concert that’s a benefit concert for Felix. The Bossas try to get the villagers to attend and Ricardo and Samuel try to get schoolmates and their families attend. The concert comes and theplace is packed with villagers and schoolfriends alike. , Felix and the Bossas put on a great show and the money is raised to get Felix’s saxophone back.

However it comes at the expense of Lindy as she disowns Felix. The final act comes after Felix succeeds in re-auditioning. He’s able to impress his strict instructors and he’s eligible to perform in the upcoming show where he has a solo part and a performance with the Bossas. Everybody involved with the school is coming, even Mr. Soames. But Lindy refuses. She still stubbornly disowns Felix. Only time is running out. This leads to an ending that is somewhat predictable but enjoyable nonetheless.

This is a very enjoyable family movie that succeeds in being entertaining without being overly ridiculous. There are some times when the movie does tread on some things like racism and the hard times of apartheid but it succeeds in not making it too heavy for the sake of it being a family movie. Actually the movie is shown mostly of blacks and whites conversing and getting along quite well in the movie. Even Mr. Soames treats Lindy like a friend instead of his maid. The movie does remember to portray the South Africa of today. Even scenes where there’s talk of the death of Felix’s father, including that scene where Felix asks Bra Joe why his father drank himself to death, came across as not too harsh as not to ruin the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie.

If there was one issue this family friendly movie focused on most, it was classism. It does show the separation between the rich and the working-class. It’s evident in Junior and his clique labeling outsiders as NOCD. It’s evident as one of the schoolmasters thinks that being labeled ‘elitist’ is a good thing. It’s also evident as one member of Junior’s clique, Marshall, is black coming from a wealthy political family and he treats Felix as an outsider. It also shows about the sometimes unfair world about privilege. It’s first evident not necessarily in the school but with Mr. Soames as he shows Lindy his tie from the school and says: “This opens doors.” Even Lindy’s attitude as she struts around her village thinking she’s too good for the village and she’s going to get her children out by sending them to prep school is another example of the theme of elitism. Nevertheless it’s Felix and his musical pursuits who shows that class is another border music can cross and actually unite the classes together in harmony.

Without a doubt this is a family movie that follows a familiar formula. It’s a child coming of age and doing what’s in his heart and desire despite the opposition of a parent. I’ve seen the formula before. The only way for a film like this to succeed is if it does the story right and if it makes you want the protagonist to win in the end. The movie does more than just simply make us want Felix to perform at the jazz recital despite Lindy’s opposition. The movie also wants to make the mother heal from the loss of her husband. We know that Lindy secretly still loves Felix’s father despite drinking himself to death. We also know the real reason why she considers jazz music evil: because she blames it for her husband’s death. The movie’s story succeeds in being a risk-taker in the plot. Felix’s pursuit of jazz, especially through playing his late father’s saxophone, could either help her heal from the pain or make it worse. That adds friction to both sides of the story. It’s something that not even Mr. Soames having tickets to Felix’s recital can soften Lindy’s heart.

For all intents and purposes, this is a feel-good movie that did all the right moves. There were many instances in the movie where the feel-good moments would normally come off wrong or ridiculous but it did things right. Some may feel the ending of it to be too fluffy or sugar-coated but we shouldn’t forget that this is intended to be a family movie. Besides name one classic family movie with a sad ending.

This is yet another example of countries trying to lean more towards creating movies and maturing past making simply films. And it’s not just simply making a movie loaded strictly with entertainment elements. They want to put effort into the story and deliver a professional winsome product. Felix is a good example of the South African film industry doing so. And it’s not just any type of movie but a family movie. Film industries around the world have always tried to make family entertainment. Very rarely does one stand out and catch the world’s attention. Felix appears poised to do just that.

Right now making live-action family movies is in a bit of a slump for Hollywood. It’s been a while since they’ve shelled one out that has fared well at the box office. Most family movies that have fared well in the last few years have been the animation movies. Felix doesn’t feel the pressures of Hollywood. The South African film industry is an industry that has little to lose and everything else to gain. A movie like Felix can gain a lot if distributed internationally. I see a lot of elements in the movie that can allow this film to excel internationally whether it be on the big screen or DVD. It just has a lot of charming ingredients that succeeds in entertaining.

The biggest accolades has to come from Hlayani Junior Mabasa for playing the musically gifted Felix Xaba. He was entertaining from start to finish and never let go of his scenes. Lina Sokhulu was also very believable as Lindy. She had to personify a woman with many different personalities: struggling, confused and hurting. She delivered a performance that was very well without interfering with the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie. Thafelo Mofokeng was also very good as the warm Bra Joe. Actually it was Bra Joe’s easygoing personality that seemed to make the hardest issues in the movie come across easier. The ensemble of both the young actors and the older actors and musicians also worked to make it enjoyable.

The thing that will surprise most people is that Felix is actually written and produced by women. It’s directed by Roberta Durrant who has an excellent resume in terms of film and television production in South Africa. In fact she has even received a Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to film and television in South Africa. Shirley Johnson is a new writer with credentials in writing for television and stage and is an experienced actress. In both cases this is Johnson’s first time writing for a feature film as this is Durrant’s first time directing a feature film as well. Actually the script for Felix was an idea that started by Johnson back in 1995, finished the original draft in 2004 but only now came to full fruition. The end result is very professional, very impressive and very entertaining. The music ranging from the school band to the Bossa Boys to the church choir was also top notch and made the movie.

Felix is a fun entertaining family movie from South Africa. It’s a feel-good movie you don’t have to feel guilty liking. Reminds film festival crowds that audience satisfaction is not a weakness in film making.