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Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | November 26, 2014 | Add Comments

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) pushes aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) past the limit in WhiplashDamien Chazelle’s Whiplash builds from a terrific opening and just doesn’t stop: it’s always moving, building, and occasionally erupting, as it rivets and shocks and enthralls, takes sharp turns and big leaps, then astonishes with a grand finale that’ll leave you immensely satisfied yet queasily uneasy. Like a great drummer, the film sticks to a tempo but throws in plenty of surprises and flourishes, and never plays a note off.

Whiplash opens with a black screen, as a drum roll builds from an unsettlingly slow pace to an exhilarating explosion of pure, refined noise. Then, as the tempo reaches an unbeatable high, a bass drum slams and then we cut, quicker than the climactic hit of a crash cymbal. In a wonderfully immersive shot, the camera glides through a hallway, towards Andrew Neiman, our freshman protagonist, who’s practicing away on his drum kit. Then Terrence Fletcher, the school’s highly respected jazz conductor, enters the room and tests Andrew on his skills. In a few days, he’s earned a spot as backup drummer in Fletcher’s highly elite band.

At first, Andrew is thrilled, and why shouldn’t he be? His college, the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, is the best music school in the country but, suddenly, he’s placed at the top. Maintaining that position, however, will cost him everything. Fletcher, it turns out, is no smiley inspirational hand-holder. Instead, he’s an exacting, nasty, practically abusive oppressor who feels pushing people not to but past their limits is the only way to achieve great art. In his mind: if we don’t try harder than our hardest, we’re denying the next generation a fresh set of cultural icons. Instead of giving up on this seemingly unattainable pursuit of perfection, Andrew persists, giving his all in hopes of becoming the next Buddy Rich, his idol. “I want to be great”, he tells his less focused girlfriend Nicole. “And you’re not?”, she asks. “No, I want to be one of the greats.” And so, testing all of his relationships and forcing himself to doubt his own motives and common sense, he practices and endures, struggling to persevere and surpass Fletcher’s twisty, twisted jungle of psychological manipulation, physical exhaustion, and verbal abuse.

Andrew’s struggle in Whiplash has a constant sense of genuine immediacy, and there’s a reason. Director Damien Chazelle based the film on his high-school experience as a promising jazz drummer dealing with an abusive teacher. He wrote the script for Whiplash in 2012, then adapted it into a short film to attract funds for a feature. It won Best Short at the 2013 Sundance festival, and, when he returned the next year, the full length version garnered Best Film.

That’s a terrifically inspiring story of indie success, but it actually means something because Whiplash is a breathtakingly gripping, rush-out-and-see-it filmmaking triumph, with none of the amateurish shortcomings you’d expect from a director’s sophomore effort (his first release was the modest monochrome jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).

Chazelle’s style isn’t just polished and professional but also personal and distinctive. Working alongside cinematographer Sharon Meir and editor Tom Cross, he displays a masterly understanding of the camera and the edit, and how to fuse the two to create fireworks. To create a palpable sense of place, for example, he shows us the tiny details of a scene (the tightening of screws on a snare drum; the pouring of soda at the movies; a couple’s feet touching under the table) using just a few, carefully framed shots and some swift cuts. And during the performance scenes, particularly the finale, (the jazz soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling) he uses rhythmic bursts of cuts and angles to put us right on stage, behind the kit, with Andrew. While the musical prodigy plays stunning solos, the man behind the scenes is creating his own tour de force. (On a side note: while I’m no jazz purist, the soundtrack is delightful and often thrilling; the boundlessly energetic title track and sped-up Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” are highlights.)

The film may be a technical stunner, but it also proves Chazelle’s talent as a shrewd, thoughtful storyteller. His script, clearly a long-in-the-process labor of love, is brisk and sharp, laced with anxiety-inducing suspense, vile humor, and startling surprises. There’s not a wasted moment, and each scene builds upon the last, creating unbearably exhilarating tension. And the snappy, clever dialogue manages to be both honestly, awkwardly touching (Andrew asking out Nicole) and lightning-speed witty (a dinner table debate).

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) shows no mercy to his jazz band students in WhiplashThe characters of Andrew, a tenacious workhorse, and Fletcher, the vicious instructor, are rather unusual, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make them full-blooded, believable human beings. Watching Andrew’s innocent confidence transform into unstoppable determination is an awe-inspiring yet agonizing experience and Teller captures the youthful earnestness, insane drive, and unforgiving dedication with mesmerizing melancholy. Fletcher is a layered, difficult character, but Simmons nails the role. He’s ferociously intense, hurling wounding insults and music stands with unflinching brutality. But he also possesses an appalling, calculated cleverness that cuts deep (explaining what that means would ruin some great moments). And yet, for all his inhuman cruelty, there’s a bizarre reasoning to his methods of madness. Midway through, when he explains his reasons, the moment makes your jaw drop, because it’s not just impossibly despicable but also bizarrely rational.

That brings up the question that lies at Whiplash’s heart: in the quest for mastery, how much is too much? Undoubtedly, Fletcher’s tactics are nonsensical (in one scene, he repeatedly slaps Andrew to teach him to keep rhythm). Looking past his surface, you’ll find some debatable wisdom. Fletcher tells his class a story, often repeated though factually distorted, about a recording session during which Charlie Parker’s poor, off-key playing caused drummer Jo Jones to hurl a cymbal at his head. Parker was booed off stage, but he practiced mercilessly for the next year, eventually leading to his reputation as one of the all-time great saxophonists. “Imagine if Jones had just said, well that’s okay Charlie”, Fletcher tells Andrew. “Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. That to me is an absolute tragedy.” Legendary musical virtuosity certainly doesn’t come without hardship and hard work, but pushing students to such extreme lengths is unreasonably harsh. Where’s the in between? How do you achieve mastery without going past the limit? Is that possible? That’s a question that reaches so far past music, past art, it reaches almost philosophical heights. To achieve the highest level of expertise, you do have to give your all, but Fletcher’s expectation that everyone will do anything to reach the top is ridiculous. Whiplash doesn’t really have an answer for that question, but it shows us the lasting scars and wondrous talent that insane exertion can result in.

Andrew (Miles Teller) unleashes a tour de force drum solo in WhiplashAll viewers will be thankful for whatever hardships Damien Chazelle endured in making Whiplash, because the result is an astounding two hours. Thorny, thoughtful, and thrilling, with crafty filmmaking cleverness, intelligent storytelling, and two astounding lead performances, it marks the arrival of a bold new directorial voice (Chazelle) and a brilliant new star (Teller). And it does what every movie should: hook you with its opening scene, and leave you gasping for breath until the intoxicating finale. This is independent cinema at it’s most exhilarating.

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