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‘Whiplash’: Shaky premise saved by great acting

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/By 21st Century Media

What is the price of greatness? Does it require a pathological level of obsession? Is achieving it really worth everything that is entailed? These questions inform the text of “Whiplash.”

Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer. He idolizes Buddy Rich, the late master of percussion. Unlike his laid back father, Jim (Paul Reiser), Andrew is driven towards success. He has been accepted to the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. The fictitious school is one of the top ranked in the nation.

Upon arriving at his new school, Andrew encounters Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher with an intimidating mien and a ferocious reputation.  Dressed from top to bottom in black and sporting a shaven head, he cuts an imposing figure.

A scene from the trailer for the movie "Whiplash" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo

A scene from the trailer for the movie “Whiplash” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo

Recognizing Andrew’s talent, Fletcher recruits him for the school’s elite performance band. It’s quite a coup for the freshman newbie. However, it doesn’t take long for Fletcher to start subjecting Andrew to psychological abuse. Fletcher directs Andrew to show up at his first day of practice at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. When Andrew rushes to class, he learns that Fletcher has intentionally misrepresented the start time for the practice. It doesn’t actually begin until 8:30. When Fletcher arrives, he gives no acknowledgment that he has duped Andrew. It is an early manifestation of Fletcher’s streak of gratuitous sadism.

That’s only the beginning. When Andrew struggles to find Fletcher’s tempo, the teacher explodes, “Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig.” Andrew is taken aback.  Fletcher escalates the abuse, “Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pancy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine year old girl!”

Fletcher has apparently researched Andrew’s family background to learn his points of vulnerability. At one juncture, Fletcher cruelly asserts that Andrew’s father is an unambitious failure–no wonder his wife left him. Does Andrew want to grow up to be like his father? Ouch!

J.K. Simmons in a screen capture from the trailer for "Whiplash" at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo

J.K. Simmons in a screen capture from the trailer for “Whiplash” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo

Fletcher does not restrict himself to psychological and verbal abuse of his students .When a student fails to meet Fletcher’s vaunted expectations, he is not adverse to bitch-slapping them. Outside of Bobby Knight fantasies, is there any institution in the contemporary United States where this pedagogical technique would be tolerated? I doubt it.

Fletcher plays Andrew and the other drummers off one another for the top slot in the performance band. Is Fletcher trying to maximize the potential of his students or is he merely a cruel S.O.B. who delights in torturing them? What really drives the man?

In one particularly dramatic scene, an exasperated Fletcher hurls a metal folding chair across the room. The film twice references the oft-cited anecdote, which tries to account for the achievements of jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker. According to the film, back in the ‘30s, while both were members of Count Basie’s orchestra, drummer Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at Parker’s head. This supposedly inspired Parker to practice obsessively and attain greatness.

This pivotal anecdote about Parker is fraught with problems. First of all, when Parker neglected to change keys with the rest of the band, Jones threw a cymbal near Parker’s feet, not at his head. By contrast, Fletcher chair tossing episode involves a wild, seemingly random expression of anger, devoid of any didactic benefit. Secondly, for all his musical talents, Parker died a heroin-addicted junkie at the tender age of 34. If Jones’ cymbal toss turned Parker into musical superstar, shouldn’t it also be blamed for his drug addiction?  In the alternative, isn’t dedicated practice simply one element in success? “Whiplash” suggests otherwise. We are subjected to scenes of Andrew practicing his drumming until his hands are raw and bleeding profusely.

“Whiplash” is directed by Damien Chazelle off of his own 85-page original screenplay. The film had an interesting gestation. It appeared on the 2012 Black List, which delineates the most promising screenplays, which have not been produced yet. This attracted investors and enabled Chazelle to make an eighteen-minute version short from a truncated version of his screenplay. When the short played at the 2013 Sundance Festival, it won the jury award in the U.S. fiction category. This year, the expanded version of the film won the top jury and audience awards at this year’ Sundance Festival. Chazelle infuses his finished product with considerable intensity.

Much of the credit must go to J.K. Simmons, who is absolutely extraordinary in the film. This is an actor, who reliably delivers strong performances.  In his breakthrough role on “Oz,” he created the memorably villainous Vernon Schillinger. The character was a virulently racist, homophobic leader of an Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. As great as Simmons was in “Oz,” he is even better here. By comparison, he makes R. Lee Ermey, the bellowing marine drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket,” look like Mary Poppins. Hard as I tried, I could not imagine anyone delivering a more riveting performance in the role of the hard-nosed instructor in “Whiplash.”

“Whiplash” is based on a dubious premise. Driven by a spellbinding performance by J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash” it is nevertheless a film, which is well worth seeing.

“Whiplash”: *** 1/2 R (for strong language including some sexual references)105 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.

 

 

 

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