If you know me or keep up with this newsletter, you probably know I love musical coming-of-age movies. They combine my favorite things: music and character-driven stories. I recently I watched Whiplash for the first time. On paper it seems like it would fit in with some of my favorite movies, but the music is sort of secondary. And while character-driven you're almost not rooting for them. Or at least I wasn't. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie. The performances are incredible and it is a good story that keeps you engaged.
It's about Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old first year student at a prestigious New York music conservatory. The film sets him up in the beginning to be somewhat sympathetic. He's awkward, a bit shy, and dedicated to his craft of drumming. Throughout the movie, though, you see how self-centered and pretentious he is. I kept wondering if we were supposed to be sympathetic and understanding of these qualities, to write it off as how musicians are. That this is the tradeoff for being a world-class musician. I didn't quite buy into that though. The negatives became his defining traits for me and it didn't really matter how talented he was.
At school, he is invited to be the alternate for the studio band led by Terence Fletcher, the conductor. It's immediately obvious that he's the antagonist of the film. He's relentless, strict, and even violent. During the first practice, he throws a chair and slaps Andrew on top of berating him for not keeping up tempo. He constantly belittles the ensemble, expecting absolute perfection from each of them at all times. After a successful performance, Andrew is promoted to core drummer, but is quickly demoted for the new alternate who was brought in solely to drive and agitate him. Fletcher will do whatever he feels will drive his students towards perfection to the detriment of their life outside of music and mental health.
The best things about the movie are the performances of the two lead actors. Miles Teller does a great job with Andrew. You feel how badly he wants to impress Fletcher. His anger when things aren't going his way is palpable. His descent from dedicated musician to someone who is fully obsessed with becoming "someone" is realistic and gradual. And J.K. Simmons makes such a great antagonist. He's a terrible person, but you sorta understand how he gets away with it because he demands respect from his students, they want him to be impressed. Also, you know that most of the students wouldn't dare say anything about their treatment out of fear. The movie illustrates the effects of abuse well.
I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the end. Without giving too much away, be prepared for a long drum solo. Because it was a sort of forced, it felt forced. It was impressive, sure, but there was a sense it'd never end. It was self-indulgent and got tedious. I felt a bit bad for the rest of the band who had no idea what was going on or when to expect a cue. But, it served it's purpose in that way, to further highlight how much Andrew was unable to work with others and that his attitude hadn't changed. He was still the same self-centered person with a point to prove.
Overall I'm glad I watched the movie. Sometimes it's okay to watch something where the leads aren't particularly likable. The storytelling and the performances are there and make it worth it.
Book pick from Susan:
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Available as book and eBook.
From Wikipedia: "The book's plot involves a planet inhabited by evolved spiders uplifted by human scientist Avrana Kern, and their much later discovery by the last humans alive in the universe. The work plays off the contrast between the societal development of the spiders and the barbaric descent of the starship crew of the last humans."
Ugh, spiders, was my first thought. But the development of a sentient spider society was very well written. And the descent of humans across a century of deep sleeps and Awakenings seemed all too plausible. There was a bit of a 'deux ex arachnia' to the final confrontation between spider and human, but it wasn't so far out as to throw off the whole thing.
Book pick from Alana:
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne
"When Pierrot becomes an orphan, he must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy Austrian household. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler.
Pierrot is quickly taken under Hitler's wing and thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets, and betrayal from which he may never be able to escape."
Staff pick from Martha:
Shipped by Angie Hockman was a nice surprise. At the start I wasn’t sure I was going to keep reading – there’s only so much lousy behavior I want to read about. But things moved quickly and with wonderful descriptions of the Galapagos Islands, recognition of work/life issues, and real friendships with co-workers, there was a very happy ending overall.