JAZZ ON FILM FESTIVAL 2015 – interview with Spiro Economopoulos


As part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, ACMI is holding a series of screenings as part of their annual Jazz On Film series. This year’s screenings include the superb Whiplash. The screenings run from May 29 through to June 6 at ACMI. To find out more about the program, Greg spoke to the curator Spiro Economopoulos.

Last updated May 20, 2015
When it comes time for critics to compile their lists of the best films of 2014, chances are Whiplash will figure near the top.
This is an intense but compelling drama about the blood, sweat and tears shed by an aspiring artist. Whiplash is an extension of the acclaimed Sundance Prize winning 2013 short film of the same name written and directed by musician turned filmmaker Damien Chazelle, and it was inspired by his own experiences in high school. Chazelle previously wrote the thriller Grand Piano, and his only other feature film was the little seen Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench.
Andrew Nieman (rising young star Miles Teller) is a 19 year old student at the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York and an aspiring drummer. He admires the likes of the legendary Buddy Rich and practices for hours every day hoping to make it in the music world. His chance comes when he is invited to become part of the school’s music ensemble by the legendary but fearsome teacher Terrence Fletcher (J K Simmons, reprising his role from the short film).
Fletcher is something of a tyrant who believes in pushing his students to breaking point – and sometimes beyond – to make them great. His mantra is that the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job” because they encourage mediocrity. He cites an apocryphal story concerning the legendary Charlie “Bird” Parker to further illustrate his method of pushing his students through systematic verbal and physical abuse, insults, intimidation and browbeating. Fletcher pushes his students tobreaking point in a demanding test of wills that hopefully will bring out their best. He is soft spoken, but capable of sudden bursts of invective delivered with frightening intensity.
Whiplash is essentially a two hander, with the battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher providing the dramatic fireworks. The final 20 minutes of this film offer a tense emotional roller coaster ride in which the balance of power in the tempestuous relationship between teacher and pupil is subtly changed. Chazelle’s confident direction will keep audiences emotionally off balance throughout the film. The spectacular climax will have you cheering at the same time you are poised on the edge of your seat and sweating along with Andrew.
With his shaved head and brutal and uncompromising performance here Simmons is a truly scary creation. His hypnotic and full on performance is reminiscent of R Lee Ermey’s vicious, unrepentantly foul mouthed drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or a nastier version of John Houseman’s professor in The Paper Chase. Simmons has played unlikeable characters before (brutal tv series Oz, etc), but this is the performance of his career, and he should be the frontrunner in any Oscar talk at this stage.
This is also a revelatory performance from Teller, who first came to notice in the dark psychological drama Rabbit Hole, but he has since attracted more popular attention with his villainous role in the blockbuster YA adaptation of Divergent. His performance here is understated, and it offers a fine contrast to the manic intensity of Simmons. Teller captures Andrew’s vulnerability and desperate need to succeed in this cut throat and competitive environment where there is a lot of pressure to succeed.
Teller also did his own drumming, which adds authenticity to those scenes where we see him bleeding and sweating for his music. The sheer physicality of those scenes is raw and almost primal.
Paul Reiser (from tv series Mad About You, etc) makes the most of his small but important role as Andrew’s father, a failed writer who wants his son to succeed in his chosen field but who is dubious about Fletcher’s methods and the high emotional and physical toll they take.
The title for Whiplash comes from a complex and complicated jazz arrangement written by Don Ellis, which plays a telling part in the film’s dramatic climax. Editor Tom Gross effectively builds up the suspense, and his cross cutting and deliberate choices creates a solid rhythm and energy that is a match for the music.

One of the cinematic highlights of 2014 was the drama Whiplash, about the turbulent relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer and his volatile teacher who pushed his students to breaking point, and sometimes beyond. The marvellous documentary Keep On Keepin’ On offers a marked contrast to that film, as it follows the wonderful friendship that develops between two jazz musicians – one a legend nearing the end of an eventful life and the other a jazz prodigy just starting out on his musical career.
The beating heart of the film is 94-year old Clark Terry, a Grammy award winning jazz trumpeter who has worked with the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and he acted as a mentor to rising young musicians Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. One of eleven kids and born into poverty and a hard scrabble life during the depression, Clark feels an obligation to give something back, mainly through teaching at New York’s Rutgers University and passing on his love of jazz and his wisdom to a new generation of up and coming young musicians. Which was how he first met 23-year old Justin Kauflin, a skinny young kid and aspiring jazz pianist who has been blind since he was eleven. When he lost his sight, Justin turned to music as a way of coping.
Clark encourages Justin as he prepares for the prestigious Thelonius Monk jazz competition and helps him try to overcome his stage fright. And when Clark is hospitalised due to serious complications from his longtime diabetes, Justin often travels down to Atlanta to visit him and help lift his spirits as he continues to gain inspiration from the bedridden old man. The pair connect over a unique form of musical language as they endlessly improvise riffs in the hospital ward, often until the wee hours of the morning. And when Clark introduces Justin to Quincy Jones during one visit the young man’s path is set.
Australian filmmaker Alan Hicks spent four years exploring the warm bond of friendship that developed between the seemingly indefatiguable Clark and Justin, a bond forged out of a mutual respect for each other and their love of music. Hicks, who studied jazz under Clark in the early 2000s and toured with his band for a period, has been granted a wonderful level of access to their lives. He also explores their various highs and lows and bouts of despair as they face adversity and setbacks. It is sometimes difficult to watch the once vital Clark struggle with ill health, having trouble breathing and moving around. But Hicks maintains a delicate balance between the downbeat and the positive uplifting moments the pair share.
Keep On Keepin’ On is the first film for former jazz musician turned Hicks, and something of a labour of love. He he has crafted an intimate and sympathetic portrait of the strong friendship between the two men. And it helps that Clark has such a rich and fascinating history and there are plenty of wonderful anecdotes told in dry and unaffected style. Justin also has an endearing personality, despite his blindness and bouts of uncertainty. Both men seem willing to open up for the cameras, and there is obviously a deep level of trust between Hicks and his subjects here.
There are plenty of photographs that put Clark’s history into perspective, as well as some rare archival footage of concerts and live performances that are fascinating. There are also a number of interviews with the likes of Quincy Jones (himself one of the producers of the film and instrumental in helping Hicks complete it), Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, and Clark’s devoted wife Gwen, that add colour and texture to this poignant documentary.
Keep On Keepin’ On is a moving, compassionate, warm, uplifting, inspiring and beautifully made documentary that holds broad appeal for audiences, even those who are not particularly interested in jazz music.

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