Monday, October 13, 2014

Whiplash (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle


Whiplash was this year's Sundance darling, winning hyperbolic praise from nearly all who managed to see it and leaving Park City, Utah with the film festival's two biggest prizes: the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. That was in January, and Sundance hits have a way of fizzling out when it comes time to the actual release. For every Precious and sex, lies and videotape, there are dozens of prize winners from Sundance that you've never heard of. But Whiplash felt different; the praise was so effusive, it felt like a surer thing. As it stands, Whiplash probably isn't what many moviegoers would expect it to be. From first-time feature director, Damien Chazelle, the film is made with a stunning clarity of vision and filled with characters so fully realized. Its tale of a music student trying to make a name for himself in concert jazz is brutal, filled with the blood, sweat and tears (literally) that separates the good from the truly great. Whiplash is a film about aspiring to be immortal, about being so good that no one will ever forget you. It's about that one thing that a legend has that no one else does, and its about the methods that artists use to locate that one thing and bring it to fruition.

The film stars Miles Teller, a surging young actor who's been in a number of different films since the beginning of the decade. He's been very good in some of those (Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now), but he's also toiled away in some broad comedy (Project X, The Awkward Moment) and it's left the jury still out on how to decide where his career may go. But he's only 27, and it's silly to expect an actor that young to have a firm grasp on the roles he chooses to play; if I was offered a chance to star in a mainstream comedy alongside Zac Efron, I'd probably take the role too. But he has shown an interest in heavier material, and Whiplash is certainly the young actor's best showcase as a dramatic performer. He plays Andrew Neyman, a 19-year-old drummer in his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. The school is historic, and Andrew wants nothing more than to be in school's studio jazz band run by the ferocious Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher's reputation precedes him; he's known for his verbal and occasionally physical abuse towards his students. The film opens as Fletcher walks in on Andrew practicing his drums at night. From that moment on, Fletcher sees some possibility in Andrew. Perhaps his late-night practicing proves that he has the drive that some other musicians at Shaffer don't possess.

Andrew is an alternate drummer for a secondary jazz band at Shaffer, where his duties mainly consist of turning pages of sheet music while the main drummer plays the music. It's tedious work, but Andrew is happy to be close to the action. But when Fletcher drops in on his class to take a look, he quickly and methodically asks each musician to play a few bars. It's a cacophony of starting and stopping, Fletcher knowing what he wants a mere seconds after the person begins playing. It's a masterful moment, Andrew watching as Fletcher holds each student to the strict sway of his hand. When it's all done, Fletcher asks for the drummer to follow him, but he doesn't mean the main drummer, he means Andrew. Just like that, Andrew moves to become the alternate drummer in the studio band. In his first day, he witnesses firsthand Fletcher's treatment of his students. Fletcher's temper is fiery, his patience for incompetence seemingly nonexistent. He's not above berating a student with all sorts of obscenity till he gets the kind of sound that he wants. When Andrew finally gets to play in the band, Shaffer makes an example of the young drummer by making him play the same piece over and over until he finds the right tempo. The right tempo is never found, and Fletcher hurls a metal chair and Andrew's head. Fletcher does not discriminate, there's enough hellfire and brimstone to go around.

Fletcher's studio room demeanor is acutely contrasted by his calm, nice guy behavior outside of the classroom. Before concerts, he's visited by former students and makes pleasant conversation. When encountered with small children, he shows a sweet warmth and an ability to connect with young people in a friendly way. Even with Andrew, before entering the studio, he advises him with a charming grin to have fun and relax. How this man transforms into the monster that he becomes is the film's most engaging magic trick. Played by dependable character actor J.K. Simmons, Fletcher is the movie's motor, the character that takes the film into overdrive. His maniacal rants at his students are personal and belittling, though he sees his behavior as helpful. One of Fletcher's favorite anecdotes is of Charlie Parker, and how he never became the legend that he's considered today until Jo Jones threw a symbol at his head. Fletcher repeats that story several times throughout the film, and it's obvious that he sees it as his personal mantra. His obsession with perfection becomes reflected onto Andrew, and the young drummer not only improves his playing, but consequently begins to mimic Fletcher's damaging behavior. This is not a film about a drill sergeant mentor and his young pupil, it's about two maniacs who see they can use each other to get to the top.

Simmons has the meaty part here, and the early word is that he has cemented himself as a surefire contender for Best Supporting Actor at next year's Oscar ceremony. Whether that ends up happening is still up in the air (not to mention that Simmons isn't supporting anybody; he's not the main character, but he certainly is one of the film's leads - but that's a whole different discussion), but what isn't up for discussion is just how good Simmons is in the movie. Shades of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket sprinkle the harder edges of the performance here, but Simmons digs deep to find the contrasting imagery that possesses Fletcher. It really is a Frankenstein's monster of the two roles Simmons is best known for playing: one is the hapless, paternal nice guy (think his dad character in Juno); the other is the acid-tongued gruff (consider his memorable turn as J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies). In Whiplash, Simmons takes both these personas and turns them up to eleven, pushing his own ferocity just as Fletcher pushes Andrew to simply play harder. It's a memorable performance for many reasons, but what Chazelle turns the character into in the film's second half was something I was quite unprepared for, and Simmons plays every note (no pun intended) perfectly.

Whiplash wouldn't be much if Chazelle's own fascination with jazz music weren't so readily apparent on the screen. His steadiness as director is complimented by his admiration for every note in the songs we hear. Concert sequences turn into editing symphonies, as Chazelle and editor Tom Cross craft wonderfully fluent scenes that really place the strict formalism of concert jazz into proper perspective for the audience. Not to overpraise, but there's a bit of a Tarantino-Menke type of chemistry in the scenes in this film, with quick cuts being smashed against longer takes. The sharp contrast adds to the film's bumpy texture, complimenting the rough, smash-mouth presentation of an art form we usually associate with grace. Whiplash is similar to Aronofsky's Black Swan in that way, revealing the brutality required to produce something so aesthetically beautiful. As the film proceeds, Andrew's own obsessions begin to show themselves. His single father, Jim (Paul Reiser) begins to worry about the pressure his son is placing on himself. Andrew ends a short but promising relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) after flatly telling her that his drumming is more important that anything that could possibly become between the two of them. At a family dinner, he frankly explains that he'd rather die friendless and be a legend, then die beloved and be quickly forgotten.

That's the key to Whiplash's immersive drive: the want of immortality. Both Fletcher and Andrew are striving for a level of commitment and performance that may not even be possible, a level that not even their own idols may have reached (and it doesn't take too much investigation to see that Fletcher's version of the Charlie Parker-Jo Jones story is incredibly tweaked to fit his own view of teaching). The film enlists an interesting moral question about the nature of nursing genius, the level of practice and athleticism that you need to achieve in order to become the person that you dreamed of. Chazelle himself has thrown his hat in the ring and said that he does not think that musical genius (at least, not the kind that Fletcher and Andrew are striving for) can be made without the crazy antics we see in this film. Critics have said that Whiplash takes aim at positive reinforcement, and makes the case for abuse as a means to fulfillment. Whatever Chazelle says about his own film doesn't hold much merit with me, I saw Whiplash as a gritty tale of those who see the haggard road to success and walk it anyway. These are not reasonable people. Fletcher claims that he's spent his entire time teaching trying to nurture the next Charlie Parker. That's not what he's doing with Andrew, he's instead nurturing the next Terrence Fletcher.

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