Friday, November 21, 2014

Whiplash



WHIPLASH: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, directed by Damien Chazelle (106 min.)

My fourth grade music teacher told my mother I had a tin ear. And like that, m career as a musician went out the window. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of music in all its forms, I am a novice. I don't grasp the inner workings of tempo and bars, beats, etc. But I love listening to so many different types of music, and I understand the emotion behind the artwork. Jazz and blues are arguably the most emotional genres, created more through the feeling in the soul than the notes on the sheet.

Tell that to Terrence Fletcher, the maniacal perfectionist band leader in Whiplash, one of the most ferociously emotional and compelling films of 2014.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a jazz drummer at Shaffer, the finest music college in the United States. Andrew lives and breathes his craft, practices endlessly, obsesses unhealthily. The fact that he even got into the school speaks to his dedication and his raw talent. His father, played modestly by Paul Reiser, is a successful high school teacher, but what does that matter? Andrew has dreams of being Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. But Parker died alone of a heroin overdose in his early thirties. Andrew says he'd rather alone in his thirties and have everyone talk about him than live sober into his nineties and nobody know the talent he had.

The college has certain caste systems, and the most coveted position is to be in the competitive jazz band under the control of Terrence Fletcher, played with almost unbearable ferocity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees something in Andrew and plucks him from the understudy position of a house band to join his core group. This is when the sadistic psychological warfare begins.

Fletcher is feared by everyone in his band. Nobody makes eye contact with him. He is a borderline psychotic perfectionists, dressed always in black, every stitch of clothing in perfect order. Fletcher preys upon his students, especially Andrew, whom he drives into masochistic practice sessions where his hands blister and bleed. There is a fine line between firm coaching and abuse; maybe that line isn't so fine, because Fletcher manages to cross the line with ease, hurling insults at his players like the jazz riffs they are trying to perfect. In one scene, Fletcher forces his three jazz drummers to try and perfect a tempo that I dare anyone to try and pick up on.

But Andrew is not to be denied his chance. He knows he is good, he knows he is the best, and he works to be the absolute best, even fleeing the scene of a shocking accident to try and make it to a competition on time. He tries to date a pretty young girl, but promptly ends that because he knows he will be insufferable to deal with.

The way Andrew is able to stand up to Fletcher's mental abuse becomes the focal point of the story. Miles Teller, who is steadily becoming one of the most powerful young actors in Hollywood, dominates his scenes, even when Simmons works at his very best to take said scenes over. The push and pull between these two actors working ferociously to destroy one another is some of the best acting of the year.

Director Damien Chazelle does impressive work here, focusing on the tiny details of the musical instruments that form a jazz band. The spit and the polish and the tuning and the beats are all impeccably on display here. I didn't know a thing about jazz drummers going into Whiplash, but it didn't matter. It's hard to believe a film with such a docile subject at the surface could be one of the more intense films I have ever seen, but that is certainly the case. Here is one of the best films of the year, one that will certainly be overlooked at awards time. Maybe that makes the most sense, because jazz drummers' fame is mostly all in their head.

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