Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Whiplash


J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Max Kasch, Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair, Kofi Siriboe, Kavita Patil, C.J. Vana, Tarik Lowe, Tyler Kimball, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Adrian Burks, Calvin C. Winbush, Joseph Bruno, April Grace. Directed by Damien Chazelle

Genius, by itself, is useless. Genius needs to be trained. Genius needs to be focused. Greatness is something that is earned, not given. Genius isn’t enough. Hard work, preparation and practice is what turns genius into greatness.

Andrew Neyland (Teller) aspires to greatness. He longs to be the next Buddy Rich. He is a gifted drummer and those gifts have gotten him accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, one of the best in the country located (of course) in New York City. There are a variety of different student bands in the Conservative but the one everyone wants to be in is the Studio Band led by Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), himself a professional jazz pianist. It is the band that the Conservatory sends out to win competitions. Most of those in the band are juniors and seniors.

Andrew is a Freshman and stuck in the Nassau band as an alternate drummer to Ryan (Stowell). as gregarious and likable as Andrew is arrogant and unlikable. While Andrew is practicing alone one day, he is observed by Fletcher who is critical of the boy. Andrew figures that he has a ways to go before he can impress the man he most wants to impress.

However a few days later Fletcher shows up at rehearsal for Nassau and demands to hear the drummers do double time swing beats. He listens to Ryan and Andrew as well, and then selects Andrew to come aboard the Studio band to be the alternate. Andrew is over the moon about this but soon sees the pressure the kids in Studio are under. The lead drummer, Tanner (Lang), is a miserable bundle of nerves hostile to what he perceives as competition.

He has good reason to be hostile. When Tanner asks Andrew to hold onto his sheet music before a competition, Andrew loses it. Since Tanner doesn’t know the beats by heart and Andrew does, he gets the core chair and Tanner gets to sit in the alternate’s chair. Andrew’s performance meets the standards of Fletcher and the Studio Band wins the competition.

 

Fletcher is a tyrannical teacher, one who teaches through humiliation and intimidation. All of the students are terrified at being the subject of his wrath but it moves Andrew to try harder. Andrew’s obsession with becoming legendary has begun to affect his relationship with his girlfriend Nicole (Benoist) as well as with his father (Reiser) and family.

But the all-out pursuit of perfection is taking its toll on Andrew and he’s completely lost perspective which only causes Fletcher to drive him harder, further. Will Andrew achieve the greatness that he so desires? Or will Fletcher break him entirely?

Chazelle originally had troubles getting financing for the script he wrote, so he condensed it down to a short which he took to Sundance in 2013. The response was so positive that he was able to secure financing and make a feature film which he brought back to Sundance this year. It earned raves and the Audience Award. I can say that those raves and awards are well-earned.

The movie is as intense an experience as you’re likely to have at theaters this year. The battle of wills between Fletcher and Andrew is incendiary; you can almost see the sparks flying. Some critics have complained that a teacher like Fletcher would quickly and quietly be let go once allegations of abuse reached administrative ears. All I can say is that may be true in today’s lawsuit-happy world but that Chazelle based his script on his own experiences in music school so that must be taken into account.

The performances here are riveting. Teller is never better as the ambitious and obsessed Andrew. This Tampa-area native has great things ahead of him if performances like this are any indication. That Andrew is so basically unlikable – his arrogance and lack of perspective coupled with an occasional condescending tone to his conversation make him a hard guy to like – but we end up rooting for him anyway is a testament to Teller’s skills.

For me though, Simmons is the main attraction. Long a capable character actor with TV roles that include  the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in Oz, a recurring role on Law and Order and the Farmer’s Insurance commercials, he has had few leads in movies as he does in The Music Never Stopped, he does exemplary work. Here he gets to cut loose as the autocratic and sadistic Fletcher. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize him as a villain but in essence that’s what he is and Simmons gives the character depth – an ability to charm one moment and be terrifying the next. I’m not saying that an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor is a sure bet but it should be.

The soundtrack mainly of jazz standards is an extra added attraction. Those unfamiliar with orchestral jazz can get a pretty decent primer on some of the best examples of that musical form, including Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,”  Stan Getz’ “Intoit” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” are mostly not performed by their original musicians but they are competently done here by my limited expertise.

The cost of greatness is staggering, taking a toll on family and friends alike in addition to the pursuer of greatness themselves. It can be an often-lonely undertaken and as many times as not few people other than the person in question believe in their ability to achieve that greatness. That pursuit and its costs are at the center of the movie. You have to end up asking whether it is better to be famous and alone or to be happy and unknown. Andrew seems to think it is.

The ending of the film is left subject to the interpretation of the viewer. Is it redemption, submission or madness? Who won, if anyone? These are points to ponder on your own but be warned there are no easy answers. I consider myself a fairly decent student of story but I’m still mulling it over what really happened at the end of the movie. I’ll probably be thinking about it for awhile. And that, my friends, is the true mark of cinematic greatness.

REASONS TO GO: As intense a movie as you’ll see this year. Extraordinary performances from Simmons and Teller. Great soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Neither Andrew nor Fletcher are particularly nice characters. Some may find Fletcher’s tactics unrealistic in an age of lawsuits.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language including a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller has actually played the drums since he was 15 years old. Even so, he took additional lessons to learn jazz drumming techniques which are less conventional than rock drumming. He developed some intense blisters during filming and some of the blood on the sticks and on the drumset is Teller’s real blood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Broken City