Whiplash and Birdman — two of the best films released this year.
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle. At the Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Embassy Waltham.
Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. At Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, and AMC Loews Boston Common 19.
By Tim Jackson
Thrashing jazz drums accompany two of the best films released this year. Both efforts are about artists who are more than willing to torment themselves in order to prove worthy of their demanding crafts. In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, young Andrew Neyman, played by Miles Teller, goes to extremes to realize his dream of becoming one of the world’s great drummers. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Michael Keaton’s aging movie star Riggan Thomson, already rich and world famous, drives himself mad to prove his stature as an artist.
Whiplash, directed by Harvard graduate Damien Chazelle, is based on an 18-minute version of an earlier film with the same title. His charming first feature, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, was shot in black & white entirely around Boston, and is filled with as much tap dancing and singing as you would find in a low budget 1930’s musical. It is a delightful short film about music and the travails of young love. Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the music for Guy And Madeline … also wrote much of the score for Whiplash, in which the earlier charm and hoofing gives way to blood, sweat, and tears. Chazelle understands the physicality of playing an instrument. He moves his camera in on faces, lips, hands, and horns and jolts the music along with rhythmic cuts.
Whiplash‘s plot focuses on Andrew Neyman, a drummer who practices with determination to be the best, but that just isn’t enough to please his abusive bandmaster, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in pitbull mode), who runs a big band of young hopefuls like R. Lee Ermey with a baton. (Ermey famously played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.) Simmons sheds every remnant of his earnest and befuddled dad persona (Juno, Men, Women & Children, etc) and dives into this part with the relish that comes from total conviction. Fletcher’s method for fostering resilient and disciplined musicians is to hurl a colorful assortment of derogatory and homophobic insults at them. He believes tough love makes outstanding players, repeatedly citing how Joe Jones once threw a cymbal at the head of young Charlie Parker for lazy playing. (This anecdote is exaggerated). Simmons takes particular delight in demeaning those in the drum chair, and young Andrew rises to the bait. He practices until his fingers are bloody and attacks the skins as if his life depends on it.
I have been a professional drummer for well over forty years and I never experienced anything quite as insane or unlikely as what this ambitious youngster does. But without raising the stakes a film can’t show the drive nor make tangible the long hours of effort that a musician puts into mastering his instrument. Here the stress level generated by Andrew’s dreams hovers somewhere between utter hell and a nail-biting sports movie. As in Chazelle’s last film, Whiplash is more myth than reality. The story builds tension through exaggeration, but the director is a drummer himself, and understands well that the physical nature of the instrument is a great vehicle for envisioning the agony and hours of frustrating defeat spent in pursuit of artistic success. If the character were a bass player they might focus on a girlfriend problem, or a horn player could have a drug issue. But the drummer? He beats on his instrument and on himself.
To the credit of Chazelle and actor Miles Teller, the drumming in the film is convincing, a credible dramatization of the experience of playing the instrument. This is not Sal Mineo in The Gene Krupa Story. The camera moves into and dwells on the playing. Chazelle understands how important it is that a drummer needs to sit back on the right tempo (which becomes a major source of offense for Fletcher). The director also knows the drums are difficult, hard on the body, and are the foundation of a jazz (and rock) ensemble – thank you very much. While Teller isn’t pulling off the major musical performances in the movie, I am heartened to report that he really does play; Teller looks authentic when he sits at the drums.
There’s a ‘secret’ audiotape that has made the rounds for years among musicians. On it, Buddy Rich endlessly abuses his own young band. The master’s unrelenting derision of his musicians was intense, though only half as colorful as the abuse hurled by J.K. Simmons. In his defense, Rich was perhaps the finest drummer of all time, and may have had his own career frustrations. That recording comes close to evoking the haranguing horrors of Whiplash. I’d bet that Chazelle has heard it. It is ironic that Andrew Neyman’s goal is to play like Buddy. It ain’t going to happen. But he’s going give it his all and that’s all we can ask for.
Riggan Thomson, on the other hand ,is his own sadistic taskmaster. Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) lives on the thin line between hysterical delusion of grandeur and the sobering reality that he just might not matter. Riggan is an actor whose success in a series of “Birdman” movies has made him a global star. He decides to test himself by producing, writing, and starring in the Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In a style 180 degrees away from the snappy editing of Chazelle’s drumming movie, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken the audacious step of appearing to shoot the entire film in one long take. The shots took long preparation and required sustained and carefully choreographed blocking. At the same time the scenario leaps ahead chronologically, it segues methodically between reality and illusion. That contrast between the grounded tracking shots and a bevy of impressive special effects is perfectly suited for the jumble of ideas that the film raises.
Riggan is driven by his alter ego, which takes the form of the basso profundo voice of his “Birdman character.” (We can hear that voice as well.) We see Riggan levitating in lotus position in his dressing room at the beginning of the film. He can move (and throw) objects with the point of his all-powerful finger. It may look like reality, but the audience is firmly in the delusional, grandiose mind of its hero. But like many a successful artist, he is fraught with doubts and insecurities. Iñárritu’s screenplay is a dark and very funny send up of actors and their collection of woes and vanities. It comes off as a psychological version of the old Broadway farce Noises Off.
Birdman is set backstage in a Broadway theater: the camera careens along hallways accompanied by a tumbling drum set score played by Antonio Sanchez (currently with Pat Metheny). This cacophony serves as an ironic contrast to the story’s emotional moments, which are accompanied by classical music. The camera veers in and out of dressing rooms and onto the stage for a rehearsal gone very wrong. It tracks around the bowels of the theater, spying out scenes worthy of a soap opera while fleshing out the cast’s convoluted relationships. When the camera finally snakes its way back to the stage the show is being performed, in a preview presentation, in front of a live audience. The camera will even soar into the sky and, in one steadicam shot bound to become a classic, Keaton runs through Times Square in his briefs.These are images straight out of dreams. It’s like Bunuel on steroids.
What holds these hallucinatory proceedings together is a clever script performed by a first-class ensemble. Keaton is excellent in a part he appears to know well. He’s on camera often and rises to the challenge of pulling off some difficult and sustained emotional moments. Equally strong is Edward Norton as Mike, a vain, preening, but celebrated stage actor who has been brought in to save the show after the first actor is unceremoniously removed. The character requires a skilled actor who can play a performer who is gifted and comically pompous in equal measure. It is perfect casting. Naomi Watts is Lesley, Mike’s lover. She is desperate for recognition. Watts, who worked with Iñárritu in 21 Grams, played with this sort of nimble layering of reality and fantasy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001, and has only gotten better.
I’m less familiar with Andrea Riseborough as Laura, Riggan’s lover and the fourth member of the film’s stage ensemble, but the actress is strong, funny, and very sexy. Others in the cast include a slimmed down Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s anxious manager. By playing the role straight, he gives a hysterical performance. Amy Ryan, who actually is a great stage actor, has a small role as Riggan’s warm-hearted ex-wife, a woman resigned to the man’s deep insecurities. Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, Sam, is just out of rehab and more than a little fed up with all the artifice of the acting business. Now working as his gal Friday, she provides her father with a dependably sobering perspective on his overweening vanity. In her world ‘getting real’ also means getting hip to Twitter and social media. (“Believe it or not, this is power,” she says when she shows him his now gone viral underpants-run-through-Time-Square video.) Once again this stunning young actress shows how effortlessly she can shift the tempo of a scene. She finds the heart, soul, and humor in a part that would probably have been a cliché in lesser hands.
The movie is a mad, rambling mediation on illusion and truth, the insecurity and vanity of show business, the fatuousness of critics, the commercialism of Hollywood franchises, and the belief that popular taste “wants action, not talk.” For all its cynicism and bleakness, Birdman is filled with enormous humor and clever writing. It’s a tour-de-force of directing, beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Children of Men), its images realized through an impressive assemblage of special effects wizards.
You will see at the end why the movie is subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, but watch carefully for the answer. You cannot predict this film’s elaborate twists and turns. While “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” would seem to be an odd choice for the stage, that just may be what the film is really about. I had an acting teacher who once said that when you get down to it, no matter how complex, every scene at its core is always about love.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.