There are many good reasons to see this really unexpected, small drama. It is both a tight, small story and philosophical musing on the nature of art. And ignore any worry about the sound of that other layer. The questions it raises are very simple, very challenging, and can be applied to anything you want to achieve. In short: how driven are you and what means are acceptable to get you to your goal? Through till the end of the movie you will not know how the main characters answer these questions. Whether you agree with either of them is part of the truly wonderful aspects of the piece. There are many uncomfortable positions you will take as the story unfolds.
Writer/director Chazelle (Grand Piano) keeps complete control of his cast through this journey; he doesn’t allow his actors to ask those questions, they only live in the moment. The performances remain wholly real and visceral. He is working with characters on the outer edge of drive, so the heightened nature of their actions and reactions feels both right and necessary.
Balancing that energy and hyper-focus are some nice supporting performances by Reiser (Life After Beth) and Benoist (Glee) to keep the film on an even keel. But make no mistake, this is primarily a duet between Teller (Rabbit Hole, Divergent) and Simmons (Labor Day, Growing up Fisher, and so much more). Teller continues to prove he has ability; even musical ability in this case. Simmons, however, turns in a subtle and powerful performance that is deservedly winning him award notice and may well land him in the Oscar race this year.
Much like Birdman, the score for this movie also becomes its own character. Built almost entirely of jazz standards, live and recorded, it focuses on percussion, suffusing the story with rhythms as well as setting the stage. Whether you like jazz or not, you will thrill at the ability of the musicians in this near-Bizarro World version of Fame. (And while that analogy cheapens this story, it still feels right; just don’t let it dissuade you.)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down for this screening. But it started with a bang and drove through to the end near-breathlessly. It has some weaker moments but, by the end, it is clear why they are necessary as a banal reference to the world both of these men live in and may have to return to. Chazelle continues to impress me with his story-telling ability and I have to admit I’ve been a fan of Simmons for years. This is one of films that has slipped past most people’s notice… don’t let it slip past yours. It will entertain you and leave you with questions we should all be asking of ourselves and others.