Jazz films explore the hell and joy of musical perfection
"Not my tempo," the bandleader says. The drummer tries again. "Not my tempo!" The conductor counts down one more time, and again the drummer fails. This time the conductor screams, red-faced as a drill sergeant: "Not my tempo!"
Rarely has a simple music cue sounded so terrifying as it does in Damien Chazelle's big band psychodrama "Whiplash." In his Oscar-buzzed performance, J.K. Simmons rips into the role of college jazz instructor Terence Fletcher, who bullies young drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) to the brink of madness in their pursuit of musical excellence.
"Whiplash" marks the most extreme of three highly personal new movies dramatizing the jazz mystique in all its hard-won splendor. "Low Down" casts John Hawkes as real-life bebop pianist Joe Albany, who struggled with drug addiction in full view of his adoring teenage daughter (Elle Fanning). And the documentary "Keep On Keepin' On" profiles 93-year-old trumpet player Clark Terry, a veteran of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington big bands, as he mentors a 23-year-old blind piano player.
Where such previous films as the Chet Baker documentary "Let's Get Lost," Dexter Gordon vehicle "'Round Midnight" and Billie Holiday biopic "Lady Sings the Blues" earned Oscar nominations by portraying musicians at the top of their game, this year's best jazz-themed pictures price-check the cost of greatness for players whose peak years lie ahead, or behind.
In "Whiplash," taskmaster Fletcher and ambitious student Andrew personify the notion that jazz artistry depends on muscular, meticulous technical skill born of relentless training. "For all its sense of freedom and improvisation and joy, the actual craft you need to be a high-end jazz musician requires a really high level of technique," Chazelle says. "Whether it's Charlie Parker or Coltrane or Buddy Rich, or any of the greats, the majority of their time on any given day was spent practicing. It's not just about coming up with brilliant new ideas and musical languages."
To extract technically perfect performances from his charges, Fletcher hurls insults, throws chairs and stages a drum-off between Andrew and two rivals until their fingers bleed. Such behavior draws from a lengthy tradition that equates high pressure with high standards, Chazelle says. "Throughout jazz history, there's been many autocratic bandleaders and teachers. It's well documented, for example, that Buddy Rich screamed at his musicians, but at its height, the band was phenomenal. I talked to Rich's former bandmates before making this film, and it's no secret: The culture in that band was brutal. So you look at that and ask yourself, 'Is it cause and effect?' Was it because of that brutality that they were so good?'"
"Whiplash" crackles with a wealth of cutthroat detail informed by Chazelle's experience. As a teenager, he played drums in a championship New Jersey high school ensemble under the direction of a relentless bandleader. "I remember my conductor literally had me play a single down beat on the bass drum over and over and over again for half an hour while the whole band watched," Chazelle says. "It was one of the most humiliating experiences."
Unlike Chazelle, Australian drummer-turned-filmmaker Alan Hicks found inspiration for "Keep On Keepin' On" in a relatively nurturing environment. Enrolled at William Paterson University outside New York City, he took lessons with jazz master Terry and played in his touring band with gifted pianist Justin Kauflin, who lost his sight as a child. Hicks later swapped drums for a video camera and spent five years documenting the teacher-student relationship between Terry, now 93, and Kauflin while fending off an increasingly aggressive diabetes.
Hicks says, "I've had bad teachers in my past who really weren't on board with how positive reinforcement can elevate the student to the next level, but Clark is all about 'Getting on the plateau of positivity,' as he puts it. He can be hard on you, but the fact that Clark believes in you means you worked a hundred times harder than you normally would because you don't want to let this guy down."
In "Low Down," teachable moments are nowhere to be seen. Set in 1974 Los Angeles, the film follows heroin-bedeviled musician Albany as he tries to stay clean and find gigs. His daughter, Amy-Jo Albany, who co-scripted the autobiographical movie, observes, "My dad was a great artist who loved his family. If you have a child, you need to be a parent too, but for my dad, it was the dope that made it impossible for him to do both of those things. He just couldn't pull it off."
"Low Down," shot on 16 millimeter film by director Jeff Preiss, catches up with Albany years after his heyday as a sideman for Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Now he's playing for tips at an empty dive. "Los Angeles was not considered a great jazz town in the '70s," Albany says. "I'd go to the musicians union with my dad and it'd be filled with these amazing musicians who couldn't find any work, so they'd get on a cruise ship or play at the bar near the airport. They were like beautiful relics."
"Low Down" surveys the collateral damage triggered by the kind of drug habit that hobbled many jazz musicians of Albany's generation. But as much as the film's self-sabotaging antihero loved heroin, he loved jazz even more.
"It takes an incredible level of devotion to play as well as my father did," Albany says. "When he didn't have access to a piano, it's like he'd lost a limb. My dad took a lot of wrong turns and blind alleys, but he practiced eight hours a day until the day he died."
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