Tuesday, October 07, 2014

“Whiplash”– Movie Review



This week, The New York Times Film Club screened “Whiplash”, a drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. 


When a promising young drummer is selected by one of his school’s toughest teachers to join a group to compete in music competitions, he works hard to earn his teacher’s respect – but after the teacher’s intimidation tactics prove a bit too rough for the young man, will he quit or does he have what it takes to stay with the band?


At the tender age of 19, Andrew (Teller) already has his life’s career path planned:  he’s going to be a jazz drummer – in fact, not just any jazz drummer, but the very best jazz drummer, rivaling his hero Buddy Rich.  Towards that end, he has enrolled in New York City’s Schaeffer Conservatory, which many consider to be the best music school in the entire country.  While practicing his drumming in an empty studio, Andrew’s talents are overheard by Fletcher (Simmons), a notorious teacher within the school; Fletcher likes what he hears and invites Andrew to join his jazz ensemble, comprised of other students at Schaeffer. 

From his first day in the group, Andrew begins to wonder if he made a mistake; Fletcher turns out to be a tough taskmaster, being emotionally and sometimes even physically abusive towards the students.  Tormenting his students to the point that they burst into tears, Fletcher is very competitive – the school regularly sends his music groups to competitions and he hates not coming in first place.  Fletcher’s philosophy is that if these young men really have what it takes to be great, then they will put up with even his most outrageous tactics. 

When Fletcher humiliates Andrew at a public performance, the young man erupts and attacks the teacher, which results in his expulsion from the school.  Later, he learns that he can get revenge on Fletcher and winds up having him fired.  Some months thereafter, Andrew learns that Fletcher is playing at a small jazz club in Manhattan and stops by to hear his former mentor play; the two chat after his set and Fletcher offers him the opportunity to be his drummer at an upcoming jazz festival.  But when he realizes Fletcher has tricked him, does Andrew have the courage to hang in there and do his best to prove his worth or will he concede victory to Fletcher?


Despite having seen a good number of movies thus far at this year’s New York Film Festival, I somehow managed to miss “Whiplash” when it played recently in late September; that was my loss, but now I’m glad I had the opportunity to make up for missing it previously.  It is rare when I can still get excited over a film, but that’s precisely how I reacted to the very intelligent and enthralling “Whiplash”.  Excellently conceived and executed, some critics understandably referred to it as “Full Metal Juilliard” when it was originally screened at The Sundance Film Festival. 

Enthusiastically, I can recommend “Whiplash” for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the performances by its two leads, Teller and Simmons; Teller supposedly wound up learning a bit of drumming for his role and Simmons is perfectly cast as the sadistic teacher.  In this movie, Simmons may have given the performance of his career and it would not surprise me if he was nominated come awards time; he is most certainly deserving of winning for his portrayal of Fletcher.  Obviously, credit must also be given to the film’s writer/director Damien Chazelle, who created a fascinating screenplay with many clever plot twists; his direction is also quite commendable as he is unafraid to move the camera to create dramatic effect, not unlike Scorsese. 

“Whiplash” asks quite a few valid questions:  “What price is success?”, “Where does commitment end and obsession begin?” and “How far can talent alone take you?” are just a few.  I would suggest that another question would also be if the character of Fletcher is really the bad guy here?  It might be a facile response to answer in the affirmative, thinking it through a bit more before replying may be in order here.  Arguably, Fletcher could be seen as being on Andrew’s side, trying to wring every drop of talent out of this boy’s body.  Likewise, one could make a case that Andrew is his own worst enemy as he makes sacrifices for his art that immensely diminish his own humanity in other ways. 


Whiplash (2014) on IMDb

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