Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Posted: January 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

I’ve seen action films less edge-of-your-seat exhilarating than “Whiplash”.  That “Whiplash” is a film about a young man who wants to be the next great jazz drummer makes this fact very surprising, or at least it did to me as I was watching the film.  With training sequences showcasing physical and mental abuse leading up to an ultimate battle of talent and will, the film at some points has more in common with a war film than with an indie drama about the power of negative reinforcement.  Watching the film an experience, and it’s one of the best films of 2014.

Miles Teller, who was so good in the previous year’s “The Spectacular Now” (which made my top 10 list of 2013), plays Andrew Neiman.  Andrew was accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, a fictional music school that the film tells us is the best in the United States.  When he’s not going to the movies to watch classic films with his father (Paul Reiser, where has he been?) and crushing on the girl behind the concessions counter (Melissa Benoist), he’s practicing his drumming into the wee hours of the night.  He has no friends, and aside from his father he seems to view the rest of his family with disdain.  One night, Terrence Fletcher (the great J.K. Simmons), the most respected and feared conductor at the school, hears Andrew playing, kind of mindfucks with him a bit, and leaves.  Later, for seemingly no real reason, Fletcher abruptly pulls Andrew from his class to place him in the role of alternate for the band the school sends to competitions when competing with similar music academies.  Perhaps Fletcher sees something in Andrew’s playing, or perhaps it’s merely the way Andrew pushes himself that Fletcher likes.

Fletcher is a bully and a drill sergeant, but apparently very talented at composing pieces and recognizing talent.  His band, though they chat as young men would when amongst themselves, snap to attention like scared boy scouts when the intimidating Fletcher enters the room.  Fletcher is a demanding perfectionist, and isn’t above public shaming and ridicule, almost causing one kid to pee himself before being kicked out for not knowing whether his instrument is in tune or not.  When Andrew can’t seem to get the tempo of a piece correctly, Fletcher slaps him.  The film doesn’t make Fletcher a one-dimensional asshole, however.  When he learns a former student of his has died, he openly sheds tears in front of his band, and plays some of the students’ music for his class.

The film makes Fletcher’s motives quite clear.  He passes on an anecdote about Charlie Parker, the great drummer, losing the beat during a song.  The story goes that another musician threw a symbol at Parker’s head because of this, and after that Parker practiced his ass off until he became one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.  I’ve since learned that the story, as the film tells it, isn’t entirely correct, but that doesn’t exactly matter.  What matters is that Fletcher believes the story, and is clearly of the camp, as he puts it, that “Good Job” are the two most damaging words in the English language.  Fletcher, and really the film, argues that negative reinforcement weeds out the real talented ones from the people who can’t take the pressure and didn’t have the gumption to go all of the way.  Fletcher is a guy who would hate all the kids of a sport getting “participation trophies” and being encouraged.  He sees greatness as only coming from being backed into a corner.  Never mind the psychological harm it may do.  Indeed, the way the film ends seems to indicate that the film agrees with Fletcher’s worldview, and though it’s a view I don’t entirely agree with (or entirely disagree with), the film succeeds regardless of whether that particular message is slightly dubious.

Andrew, despite the pressure put on him, doesn’t really fault Fletcher…mostly.  When he gets a chance to date the movie theater concessions girl, he abruptly dumps her soon thereafter because she would inevitably distract him from his real only want in life, which is to be great and to be remembered by the world, which he views as more valid and worthwhile than simply being liked or loved by those who know you in their inner circle.  Andrew would rather have the respect and admiration of strangers than the love of one woman or a few friends.  He has a singular, myopic goal, which leads to some rather dangerous and erratic behavior and choices (his rush to get to a competition after leaving his drum sticks at a car rental agency is harrowing).

I cannot begin to encapsulate how great this film is.  It doesn’t give us the protagonist we expect.  Andrew is not the young prodigy who will come to realize that greatness is no substitute for the love of a good woman, or something you’ve seen in movies like these a million times.  Nope.  Andrew barrels forward with a singular determination, even if that may make him occasionally unpalatable to the audience.  Mostly we can still empathize with him, though, and even when we think what he’s doing is crazy and just not worth it, we can’t help but root for him because it takes a massive pair of balls to keep on ticking after what’s thrown at him.

Fletcher is not precisely a villain. With a skin tight black t-shirt and imposing, muscular arms, this is the role J.K. Simmons has done that has come closest to his great “Oz” Aryan rapist Schillinger.  Despite that, he’s allowed quiet moments where we get to know where this guy is coming from.  It’s also odd that the film kind of takes his side, and throughout all of his negativity, Simmons allows us to see the light in his eyes when he genuinely thinks one of his pupils is doing a good job, even if he’d never say that verbally.

This is the only film I can think of that makes music practice exciting.  As Fletcher forces Andrew and two other drummers to do an hours-long round robin of drumming until someone can get a piece of music correctly, the camera spins around 360 degrees and the energy picks up until you, as an audience member, feel like you are there in the rehearsal space, both wishing it would stop so that the drummers are spared further indignity and that it will keep going because you want one (Andrew, let’s not kid ourselves) actually succeed and not have all of this be for naught.

Director Damien Chazelle, who I am instinctively jealous of as he was born in the same city I was and is a year younger than I yet has made such a terrific film, originally made “Whiplash” as a short film to gain financing for this full length feature, hence the surprising news that it received a nomination for Adapted Screenplay as opposed to Original Screenplay for the Oscars.  With only one other film under his belt (unseen by me) he has made a film that throws away the clichés of the coming of age film, or the musical prodigy film, and created a brutal, sometimes ugly, yet beautiful and electric film that gets to the heart of what may be a wider issue: how do we educate our youth, and what is the correct way to motivate talent?  I know some teachers who think discipline and getting back to hitting kids with rulers would do a generation of spoilers, narcissistic, entitled young a bit of good.  I am sympathetic to their view, but not to their glorification of past abuses.  Fletcher may, in the end, be a good teacher by being exacting, but that’s like saying a fascist dictator is a good leader by keeping crime low when the death penalty is used for all offenses, no matter how minor.  Fletcher has good intentions, but we all know that saying about the road to hell.

Regardless of how you may feel about the film’s tacit endorsement of Fletcher’s attitudes, this is a masterful piece of work.  I thoroughly enjoyed every damn second of this film, and I am pleased as punch that this film, while it may not be seen by as many people as an “American Sniper” or a “Guardians of the Galaxy”, will at least get some notice thanks to the Academy’s nominations.  That, my readers, is why I can never fully be upset with a silly award show that hands gold statues to millionaires. A.


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