Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash Movie Review

I had the great privilege for a short time in my life to be part of a musical ensemble that was led by a director who refused to settle for mediocrity. I don’t have any memories of him praising our work or telling us we performed well. Maybe he did sometimes, but that’s not what stands out. What remains in my mind about those four years was his sense of striving, his brow-beating us to work harder and achieve more, his sarcasm when we underperformed out of laziness or weariness. Some might think of him as somewhat abusive. There was no shortage of tears during the year and he was at times prone to inappropriately berating his students. And we were just kids, after all. But what we achieved musically, spiritually, and socially is something that has gone unmatched in my adult life. A lot of students came out of that experience encouraged to go on to music school. Some of them are professional musicians. They all have him to thank in at least some small part for it.

That director wanted greatness from a generation he saw as increasingly coddled. Bu is there a line that can be crossed? How much pushing is too much? That question is asked by Andrew Neiman late in Whiplash, the second feature by writer-director Damien Chazelle. Andre asks it directly to Fletcher, the painstaking perfectionist jazz ensemble director who screams and yells and throws things at, emotionally abuses, and even at one point slaps his students at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, a New York City music school standing in for Juilliard. Andrew asks this after Fletcher explains that he believes you can’t get Charlie Parker to become “Bird” without the right motivation. He likes to recite a story of a band leader throwing a cymbal at Parker’s head for failing to keep tempo. He insists that only dogged determination and practice can produce a sublime artist. He’s right, but he sees it as his responsibility to search for that future gift to humanity, an artist who will not emerge without first being abused, I guess.

Andrew is a jazz drummer. When he is selected as the new alternate for Fletcher’s Studio Jazz Band, the ensemble that wins every competition it enters, he goes from a quietly introspective music geek to having enough confidence to ask out the girl at the popcorn counter at the movie theater he frequents with his supportive dad (Paul Reiser). Soon he’s selected for the core ensemble and learns exactly what that means in terms of putting up with a torrent of verbal insults. Andrew is determined not to fail. He thinks he has the potential to be “one of the greats.” So he keeps coming back for more to the point that he’s the only member of the band willing to talk back to Fletcher, not to call him out on the verbal tirades, but to stake a claim for what he views as his rightful place in the chair when Fletcher tries to replace him with an inferior drummer.

Andrew sheds blood, sweat, and tears all over his drum kit. He practices so much he winds up with blisters and sores. He works himself into such a frenzy trying to play at an almost impossible tempo that even the cymbals themselves appear to be sweating. Miles Teller plays Andrew and, while not yet boasting a great deal of range following a notable turn in The Spectacular Now, he gives a solid and believable performance. Even when Andrew is saying and doing entirely unlikable things, Teller is imbuing him with humanity. J.K. Simmons was, for me, the real star of the show as Fletcher. Of course it’s a meal of a part and an actor’s dream. Simmons is just right. He can hit the softer moments when he’s setting a student up to come crashing down. He can wing verbal zingers with clarity and razor-sharp sting. And he can go into complete meltdown mode.

Some of the film is electrifying. Chazelle’s direction of the musical sequences is quite special. This isn’t your average musical genius genre film. He gets to the toil that goes into being the best, the long hours of practice and the physical grind to get it right even when sanity is telling you to take a break. There’s an editing style at work by Tom Cross that focuses more on the instruments than on the people playing them and he cuts to the beat of the music or to the bang of the drums and crash of cymbals. They put you right inside that performing ensemble. It’s both visually and aurally gripping.

But throughout the story I couldn’t get my head around just how implausible I found so much of it. Maybe I can believe a teacher could get away with behavior like this for so long without being reprimanded or fired. But I think it was at the point when Andrew flips his car on the way to a competition, crawls out, makes his way to the venue and walks onstage covered in blood and no one stops him from performing that the movie really lost me. I’m just not sure I buy into the basic premise. It seems that Chazelle believes, at least to some degree, what Fletcher believes. I don’t happen to believe you get great production and harness talent by going as far as Fletcher goes. Then again, maybe Chazelle’s story is a response to a generation that has so much handed to them, a generation whose parents have held their hands the entire way and told them at every turn that everything they did and produced was excellent. If you get a trophy for showing up, what’s going to happen when you have to do real work one day? I wish I could say that’s what Chazelle was getting at, but he didn’t spend enough time focused on it. Instead we’re left at the end feeling good about a narcissistic student musician and his abusive mentor because, hey, look how well he plays those drums at the end.

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