Whiplash; Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
A snare erupts, the cymbals whisper, the bass kicks in gently, the tom toms remain silent and the blood drips onto the drum kit. Throughout whiplash the tension is as palpable as a Michael Mann gangster flick, tangible and waiting to erupt. Director Damien Chazelle says that he made Whiplash based on his memory of being a band student in his high school. Hopefully his memories aren’t as sharp and sometimes as traumatizing as the lead character Andrew Niemans. The movie being Damien Chazelle’s debut, one wonders how much of a push he would give himself, ‘Whiplash’ being one constant push towards excellence, a tough hard push that does not wait for wounds to heal.
Miles Teller, whose last enjoyably transformative performance was in ‘The Spectacular Now’, plays Andrew Nieman in what could be for his career a massive qualitative boost. Notwithstanding the fact that he plays Stretch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, ‘Whiplash’ would definitely provide him enough rooting in the drama genre to not be labelled a comic movie actor. Wikipedia tells us he has been drumming since he was 15 and practiced more intensely for his role as a first year student of the top music school in New York, Shaffer Conservatory. Also present in said school is Terence Fletcher, conductor of the best Jazz band in the school and naturally Andrew wants to be a part of the band. His perseverance is tested in 106 minutes of sharply cut ear-drum pleasing jazz goodness that gets a little nerve wracking from time to time. This brings us to Terence Fletcher, as played by J W Simmons – a no-nonsense Jazz expert who can spot tempo differences and match a 300 beats per minute tempo with around the same number of expletives when he finds a single instrument out of tune or a single beat missing in his score. While he has a quick ear for talent and attempts to use as much pressure as the earth’s crust on a spare bit of coal to bring out the diamond in his rare protégés, he does not care that he appears to everyone else a monster.
I confess I was physically intimidated while watching Simmons’ kind face (that I remember from Spiderman and Juno) transition into spittle-flying, rage contorted, suture-like-vein-lined profile while he yelled into a face and drilled their impotence into them. As of last night Simmons holds 40 nominations (according to Wikipedia) out of which 34 have won him best supporting actor awards and 3 including the honor from the Academy are pending. Sadly for the other nominees, this visceral performance that matches some of the best efforts from the previous Academy category winners even matching some of the best method acting by the likes of Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’ might just have the edge over them.
Damien Chazelle has accomplished something that isn’t exactly new but is definitely novel in that there are sequences where he manages to bring in the same amount of tension as a life or death situation to the interaction between a band conductor and his musicians. Miles Teller under the ably driven direction of Damien makes us appreciate the literal blood and sweat that goes into the percussive goodness that’s always a little under-appreciated in most music. Jazz is something I am new to and to get a hit of what it sounds like while being put through the roller coaster that is ‘Whiplash’ is an experience that, if you are like us, will leave you clapping really loudly when the end credits roll (which we did, even though there were just the two of us watching the movie). The life of anyone who chooses to excel at something they love doing is not going to be simple. Add to that the best mentor that life can offer you being the person you want to be able to make proud but his methods aren’t exactly orthodox not to mention, well, human.
The two words that are capable of most harm in the English language are ‘Good Job’ says Fletcher while ruminating on his methodologies. In an age of over appreciation where every kid gets a gold medal for participation and every average job is given appreciation unquestioningly, Fletcher’s quote will resonate with almost all of us who strive for excellence. But how far can one push and be pushed until one loses ones humanity in the quest for perfection. ‘If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band’ says a poster of Buddy Rich. Would you rather play in a rock band and enjoy what you are doing or would you skin your hands on your sticks playing that perfect ‘Whiplash’ so one of the best conductors of Jazz can smile at you with his eyes? The question is definitely not rhetorical and neither is it a simple yes or no. That in a nutshell is ‘Whiplash’, one of the best movies of 2014 and a movie that made me gain a little more respect for drummers.