This Intensely Spellbinding Movie Will Hit Close to Home For Anyone Who Has Both Idolized and Feared Your Mentor or Idol.
As a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor (J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
Let’s face it, we’ve all had that one teacher that has instilled both equal parts fear and inspiration in you. These are the people, for better or for worse, that have such a profound impact on you as they affect how you will eventually turn out from the decisions you make to your eventual career path. You never forget them, you love their hate, you hate their love, because they get to you in that inimitable way. For an Oscar® nominated film like “Whiplash,” which focuses on a music progeny who gets wrapped up in the watchful eye of a masochistic instructor who yells screams not just swear words, but misogynistic and homophobic slurs that would make even Archie Bunker blush, it sticks with you for a long time after watching it because you empathize with everyone involved, strident student and horrible instructor alike.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’ “
If you are an aspiring artist, musician, athlete or honor student then you will probably bristle at those words (so too will your parents). But those never been truer words as recited by a young drummer’s tyrannical teacher who drives his students to excellence, or more likely despair, with his constant belittling of them, their talent, even their sexuality and parentage.
Miles Teller plays 19-year-old Andrew Neiman. As an actual trained drummer, you can tell Teller is in his comfort zone. He plays Andrew as a borderline obnoxious savant, with a jumble of half-hidden feelings and overbearing insecurities. But the movie’s black heart and soul belongs to that of J.K. Simmons as the Machiavellian legendary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher, a verbally, physically abusive authoritarian. He turns questions of tempo and rhythm into matters of life and death. He’s a manipulative enigma, encouraging one second saying “the key is to just relax,” which he purrs in Andrew’s ear before one rehearsal, and then becomes Satan the next scene demanding perfection from all of his drummers competing for the one slot by making them perform during rehearsal over and over again until everyone collapses.
But let’s start from the beginning…
In the movie’s first shot, you see Andrew as he practices alone one night at his New York music school, with the menacing beat at play the camera rolls in slowly down a dark hallway. (Thank you to the cinematographer and lighting director who provide so much to the world we get to see and experience here.) Just from these few minutes along you can tell Andrew is someone with remarkable talent and willing to work at improving at it. After watching and hearing him for a spell, Fletcher eventually invites Andrew to join the studio band. We get the sense of Success is here! Then he’s humiliated by Fletcher, slapped around, literally, busted down to alternate. Now we’re back down to Failure. (Oh great!) Fletcher practically goads this new guy into quitting, but how does Andrew respond? He fights back and begins marginalizing everyone around him and everything in his life for the sake of his new found career that has taken hold of him. He is now bleeding for his art.
A new burgeoning relationship with a fellow college student (Melissa Benoist) gets sidelined because Andrew tells her that he can’t accommodate love and empathy. Andrew’s sweet, ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) represents one side of a coin of a father figure, while Andrew clearly looks at Fletcher as the flip side. Recently an intriguing article from USA Today posted an intriguing discussion on how get a point across when it comes to pupils or disciples. It is as if Andrew cannot resist the abuse from Fletcher because he refuses to quit.
But where is Whiplash headed?
As “Whiplash” builds, demonically so, to a crescendo of panting grandiosity, you start thinking about the mixed-up, fascinating implications of what you’ve just seen. Can Andrew ever integrate the pieces of his fractured life? He can’t live with his devil known as Fletcher, but he apparently can’t live without him either. In the end, we are left with ambiguity as to whether of not Andrew managed to one up Fletcher at his own game. But that’s the brilliance of Whiplash in the end, it doesn’t give you answers to the questions you long desire. It cuts straight to black when all of a sudden you want more. Sure there are some questionable moments in the film where Andrew is put into a position where you think there is no way he can continue performing under any circumstance, but somehow he does, leading to disastrous consequences, proving what doesn’t kill us makes us somehow stronger.
“Whiplash” lives up to its name. It throws you around with exacting control, yet the film’s director Damien Chazelle manages to exert tight, exacting control over his increasingly feverish and often off-putting comedic melodrama. (There was a similar intensity Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar® winning ballet melodrama, “Black Swan.”) By combining a number of various genres from comedy to drama to thriller to horror, “Whiplash” turns into a new take of “a-star-is-born saga” in its final climatic scene, set at a concert in Carnegie Hall. I’m not sure the climax works as well the story line that precedes it — yet Chazelle’s technique is so fabulously effective even when his story telling instincts wobble just a bit. The movie hums with provocations and its own youthful yet maturely realized vision of artistic torment and release, and it’s a cinema highlight for 2014 for sure.
Although “Whiplash” is no longer in theatres, you should do everything in your power to see this film on a wide screen television with surround sound. The pacing, the intensity, even the rash uncontrollable dialog that allow you to be taken along Andrew’s journey with him as he makes questionable decisions makes it all worth it. The performances, especially out of leads Teller and Simmons is first rate. They’re bold and raw, as they attempt to match mano y mano. This is perhaps the best acting duo of year out of any other films being considered the best of the year. Considering director Damien Chazelle based this film on a short film he filmed in 2012 (to prove this story was worth telling), he was able to have the temerity to expand his vision into a full-length feature, I cannot wait for his next project.
I hope ‘Whiplash” rewarded with at least the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar® on February the 22nd. The film poses a lot of questions on what you would do with such a tyrannical leader in your midst. Would you stay and fight on? Or would you fight from afar from the sidelines? In the end, Andrew continues to fight on stage and we only hope he exacts his revenge on Fletcher with the yearning for success that got him to that music academy to begin with. And in that respect, you should be lucky to catch “Whiplash” on the big screen so you can feast your eyes on what passion realized is supposed to feel like and witness what a first rate film is really supposed to look and sound like.