Monday, October 20, 2014


Dir. Damien Chazelle

4.5 out of 5

Part of my short-lived attempt to learn the drums included a music instructor that I disliked.  I felt pressured to take up the instrument because he informed me that my first choice, the flute, was "for girls."  His critiques would include jokey put-downs (which I'm sure he thought were harmless), and he was fond of giving condescending answers to questions he considered dumb.  I was both too sensitive and not talented enough to endure.  I was in the fourth grade.

So I will brook no arguments that the character of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tempest of perfectionism and unbridled contempt of Whiplash, is too over-the-top or unbelievable.  As the notoriously demanding director of an elite music school's competition jazz band, Fletcher plucks wide-eyed freshman drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) from obscurity, then methodically decimates him with a host of psychological and physical stresses.  Young Andrew, eager to prove that he has the right stuff, gradually forsakes all rationality as he tries to cultivate his musical gifts.

Whiplash is an electric, provocative film that resembles a brutal two-man war more than a musical prodigy drama.  Writer-director Damien Chazelle - who has admitted to modeling Fletcher off an intense music teacher of his youth - expertly toys with the audience much as Fletcher pushes Andrew's buttons.  He's a maestro of misdirection, no mean feat when it's also obvious that the older, smarter Fletcher is always prepared to outmaneuver his young charges.  Chazelle also displays excellent visual storytelling chops, finding ways to create dynamic cinema out of lengthy performance sequences filled with frenetic editing that wonderfully conveys the rush of adrenaline and the fraying of nerves.

The two leads have the chutzpah to match the filmmaking.  Teller is phenomenal, fully committing to a role so physical it's almost frightening, pounding away at drumkits awash in sweat and blood while maintaining an emotional stance that's equal parts desperation and spite.  And Simmons, to be frank, is perfect.  Fletcher would be easy to play as a two-dimensional monster, but the actor is the right mix of fatherly warmth and authoritativeness, flattering Andrew with attention one minute and berating him the next.  Chazelle also deserves credit for framing Fletcher as a man who, in his own way, is a truly inspirational teacher despite his apparent lack of any redeeming characteristics.  His personal philosophy - that an individual's potential cannot be fully realized unless constantly pushed beyond its limits - is pointed and unexpectedly sympathetic.

As if that weren't enough, Whiplash also contains rich sub-themes regarding the codification of the arts in general and the irony of modern jazz in particular.  This freewheeling musical genre - one renowned for its purity of expression and improvisational techniques - is presided over by sullen gatekeepers holding a strict rubric for success.  However, it's telling that Fletcher's only tender moment comes in a scene describing a prized former student who achieved much despite lacking the expected formal polish for his ensemble.  In the end, the film's most radical position is acknowledging that there is a plane above "practice makes perfect" - a realm of genius that is worth the fight.  Even though Fletcher and Andrew's bout comes close to a stalemate, I can think of no more satisfying struggle.

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