Whiplash

WhiplashSynopsis: A first-year music student (Miles Teller) wins a seat behind the drums in a jazz band led by a teacher (J.K. Simmons) who uses fear and intimidation to push his students to perfection.  

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Whiplash 8.0

eyelights: the performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. the drumming.
eyesores: the homophobic invectives.

“Nieman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drum set?”

‘Whiplash’ is a motion picture about Andrew, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who, due to his obstinate desire to become one of the so-called greats, lets himself be subjected to all manners of abuse by Mr. Fletcher, the conductor of his prestigious music school’s jazz band. The film is driven by the intense performances of both J.K. Simmons as Fletcher and Miles Teller as Andrew.

I’m not much of a jazz aficionado, but a friend of mine is a die-hard fan. When he heard about ‘Whiplash’, he was extremely excited. So that we’d have an excuse to see it, I decided to organize a group outing with the music discussion group we both belong to. I figured that seeing it with a bunch of other music lovers would no doubt add a great deal to the experience.

It was an unforgettable motion picture.

What makes it stand out from its peers (there are as many films about aspiring artists/musicians as there are inspirational sports movies) are the drumming and the performances. Between the two, it’s impossible to not be riveted to your seat, pummeled as one is by the beats and the browbeating. It’s not overwhelming, but it certainly hijacks your attention.

But one can’t be susceptible to the ritual psychological abuse that’s on display here or it would be unbearable. This is highly potent stuff: the teacher uses people against each other, picks at their vulnerabilities, demeans them, all in the name of forcing the next Bird out, to get beyond a musician’s feeling of self-contentment. It’s not fun to hear.

It’s not always fun to watch, either: the picture is drowning in blood and sweat, almost literally. Andrew plays so much and so hard, that he injures his hands, bleeding all over his drum kit. He also gets into a car accident at one point, and then desperately drags himself to his gig, bruised and bloodied. There’s really not much he wouldn’t endure to make it.

In fact, he is so focused on this goal that he cruelly breaks up with a girl he was dating because he felt that she would get in the way and that their relationship would only deteriorate from that point onward. I understood his arguments, but I found it difficult to watch the discussion he had with her; I found him callous. She couldn’t understand how deep his devotion ran.

Andrew played so furiously that you couldn’t help but wonder if Miles Teller was actually able to play this stuff, or if his drumming was carefully crafted in editing. He has been a rock drummer in the past, but he had to re-learn how to play to adapt for jazz drumming. He apparently took lessons three days a week for four hours a day to make this drumming look real.

Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference. And most people wouldn’t either, unless they were jazz musicians themselves. I’ve read a critique of the film by one such long-standing musician who was generally pleased with the drumming, but who said that the student-teacher dynamic as portrayed on screen was impossible, as it would be untenable in a real-world context.

That may very well be, but it did feel credible in the way that writer director Damien Chazelle delivered it: given the prestige of being chosen for this band, we are willing to believe that the band members would submit themselves to this sort of abuse for that golden opportunity. In fact, Chazelle says that this is based on his own personal experiences as a band student.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

After ‘Whiplash’, most of the group reconvened at a bubble tea place next door, to discuss the picture, but mostly to hang out. There was discussion aboutwhether or not Fletcher was out of character at the end, when he set up Andrew in front of a live audience, or if he was purposely pushing him to his extremes, knowing that he would cross the line into greatness.

Some of us felt that he had thus far been fueled by his ego, was more concerned with his own reputation, and that by doing this to Andrew he was publicly humiliating himself (being the band leader) – something he would never do. Some of us felt that he didn’t care about this at all and merely wanted to find the next “Bird”, at all costs irrespective of the embarrassment.

There was also some discussion about the language used in the film. Fletcher is not only verbally abusive, he spews streams of profanity that would make a sailor blush. But he also used gay slurs to humiliate his students. Some of the group felt that this was a cheap ploy by the writer, and that there was no need for it, whereas others felt it was in character, for good or bad.

Either way, it was clear that Fletcher and J.K. Simmons’ incarnation of him didn’t leave a soul unmoved.

Personally, one of my favourite moments is at the tail end, when Andrew finally outdoes himself, breaks through the limitations that prevented him from being one of the greats. It wasn’t so much the moment (which we all expected, let’s be honest) as the look in Fletcher’s eyes while he’s conducting him: you can see the personal gratification, the satisfaction subtly inscribed there.

I also really enjoyed that ‘Whiplash’ just ended with a black screen and silence – there was no clichéd applause or cheers. After all that Andrew and the audience endured, silence was the best way to approach the moment, allowing us to participate in his personal victory, but also to give us a breather after such intensity (his final performance was lengthy and strenuous).

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

For me, ‘Whiplash’ was a very nice surprise. I had read only good reviews, but I’m always sceptical going into one of these music pictures, knowing that I will likely enjoy it far less than most. But it was everything I could have hoped for it to be: it was entertaining, captivating, supported by performances of blistering intensity, and rooted in some pretty unforgettable musicianship.

Not bad for a film that was reportedly shot in 19 days, on a low budget. Now that’s what I call whiplash.

Date of viewing: November 25, 2014

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