This is a film about the pursuit of perfection. The driving, ambitious, passionate desire to be the very best you can be at something which is paradoxically a subjective and amorphous artform. So it’s perhaps fitting that it’s also a near-perfect piece of drama, a riveting character study based around the ethical question of where the limits should be when it comes to teachers pushing students to get the best out of them. There’s something utterly triumphant about a film which examines the dangers of artistic ambition ending up as such an artistic success, building as it does to a crescendo finale which serves as an extraordinary showcase of all filmmaking disciplines.

The script is one of those outstanding pieces of screenwriting – a simple enough story to engage and emote with, but heavily dripping with enough metaphor to avoid being slight or insubstantial. The writer/director Damien Chazelle was just 28 years old when he made it, which has prompted appropriately stellar career projections, and the economy of its storytelling (not a single scene, not even a line in fact, is wasted) is something to behold – it should be a screenplay class set text. He also completely nails the edit – the drumming sequences are cut together with the precision and sophistication of the complex jazz numbers they’re set to.

A film that relies so heavily on music obviously needs to get that part of things right, and not only is the sound mix perfectly orchestrated, but it totally sells the blood, sweat and tears that go into making it. There’s something exquisitely double-edged about how it portrays the brutal efforts required to play its jazz tunes, only for them to sound so breezy and relaxed when you hear them out of context. Its final flourish – a near-20 minute drum solo at the climax of the story’s drama – culminates after such masterful build in something like a cathartic explosion. You feel like you’ve actually been playing these exhausting and challenging pieces of music yourself.

It’s also a film of fine performances, and while the entire cast is very strong the movie can only be as good as its villain. Thankfully, the work done here by JK Simmons is nothing short of a masterclass in screen acting, one of those characters that are rendered so vividly you feel them becoming instantly iconic. Always a fine actor who has never really been served the parts his talent deserved, Simmons just completely devours the role of a lifetime here, dominating every single scene with a presence and charisma that is both terrifying and utterly compelling. He takes the challenging task of making a monster and getting the audience inside his head and just absolutely nails it.

So ultimately there’s a wonderful metaphor at the heart of appreciating this film. As we see how a jazz orchestra is built from individuals and steered into a collaborative whole, we also see how filmmaking can be almost transcendent when all the various disciplines involved are being exercised at the top of their game. When you have a script honed to economic precision, a team of editors presenting it with every sight and sound set to the right beat, and a fine cast spearheaded by a brilliant actor delivering the best work of his career, you are witnessing not only the pursuit of perfection but a group of people getting astonishingly close to achieving it.

An almost perfect film about the pursuit of artistic perfection9
Damien Chazelle is possibly the future of American independent film10
The editing and sound mixing in this film is about as good as those disciplines can actually get9
Watching JK Simmons create an iconic character10
Watching a film cast and crew working in sync like an orchestra creating a symphony10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • Neither of the female characters talk to each other
10Overall Score

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