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Movie Review: Whiplash


Twitview: A fever dream of a film that sucks you into the lives of those that would do anything for their art.  Riveting performances by Simmons and Teller. A-

Who hasn’t taken some sort of music class?  Whether you shook a tambourine in kindergarten, or headed out for piano classes every Saturday for 13 years (just me?), we all have that moment where we’ve tried to coax beauty out of an instrument.  Most of us walk away, choosing other paths, but those that decide to stick with it and strive for greatness?  Gotta give ‘em credit; talent and dedication is tough to come by.  And it’s tough to live with, if Whiplash is any indication.  Director Damien Chazelle takes his Sundance-award winning short film to full-length and it’s a helluva watch.

Young Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first year drummer at a prestigious NYC conservatory, when he gets tapped for a position in “studio band” in the school. (Think Glee, but with more instruments and less buffoonery.)  But conductor/professor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) isn’t anywhere near the touchy-feely type.  Unless your idea of touchy-feely is a teacher that wings chairs at your head and hurls emotional abuse that would make Joan Crawford blush.  Soon, Andrew must ask himself, is all of the blood, sweat and tears worth it?  Are moments of transcendental bliss on the part of your listeners worth your pain as a musician?  Or is he too far gone to decide?

Teller and Simmons are outstanding.  Their performances are as real as you can get onscreen, and are sure to make many sit up and take notice come awards season.  In fact, Whiplash has already raked in a few top kudos, including the coveted Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Chazelle — whose own experience as a student drummer helped shape this story — has a deft touch with the material, knowing when to pull back and when to zoom in.  At first, “Studio Band” seems like a group of the best, flying high.  Closer in, and you see the cracks in the façade, the fear in the eyes of the students.  There’s also the determination, bordering on obsession, as each instrumentalist strives to be the best, and to win Fletcher’s elusive approval.  Chazelle shapes this film with a keen eye, and the result is a film that you can’t tear your eyes away from, even when the emotions are so raw you’d really like a break.  As with Fletcher, there’s no quarter given.

Whiplash is a drama, but there are times when it feels like it’d find a home in the emotional horror genre.  Musicians play until their hands bleed, then they plunge into bowls of ice, turning the clear water deep red.  They practice over and over and over for hours, sweat dripping and pain evident.  Teller’s Andrew walks a fine line between insanity and the drive to achieve, and he’s brilliant.  “Star making turn” has been bandied about, and I agree; this will be the film that fans will point to as the film where Miles Teller showed the world what he’s got.  And Simmons, as the calculating Fletcher, is Machiavellian in his drive to “create” the perfect musician.  Chazelle has said that “…I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie — where instruments replaced weapons…”, and scenes where musicians are performing elicit those same painful, heart-rending emotions.

My only problem with Whiplash is that it focuses so deeply on the Andrew/Fletcher dynamic that all secondary characters fall by the wayside.  Andrew’s father, played by Paul Reiser, is a guy that comes by to give Andrew a hug or some popcorn.  And a dinner scene with Andrew, dad and a handful of other people is a real WTF moment, as there’s no exposition to link these new characters with the ones we know.  IMDb lists ‘em as Aunt Emma and Uncle Frank, and I’d assumed they were family or friends of some sort, but they’re dropped in, and then never heard from again.  Andrew’s love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist, Glee) fares better, but is little more than a side note to the main melody.  At least Nicole’s lack of presence is justified in the storyline, but the family dinner?  A puzzler that only seems to serve as a bit to show how out of touch Andrew is with The Real World.  Something viewers could have picked up on easily with a sentence or two from Andrew any other moment in the film.

Whiplash is the kind of Deep Thoughts film that will have you scratching your head and wanting to talk about motives, drives and the quest for success long after the credits roll.  Is Andrew using his drumming to escape into a world of music, or to avoid the world altogether?  Does Fletcher have any right to push his students to such extremes; can any good come of such violent behaviour?  As for me, I’d love to discuss this film with a few musicians I know, and hear what they have to say.  And to find out if their talents are thanks to someone else pushing them harder than anyone had a right to.  All I know right now is that the next time I put on some jazz, I’ll be listening with a different ear.


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