After seeing Whiplash, I finally have a terrific film about drumming in my index to replace Drumline which was there by default. I like drumming and percussion in general and on so many occasions, I have found myself staring at the drummer in church instead of focusing on the obvious. I have taken a drumming lesson before but after seeing director Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating drama, I accept my drumming ambitions are a pipe dream. I actually had to Google the young star Miles Teller and make sure he wasn’t the world’s best jazz drummer. I will not be cut out for it.
Whiplash gives such an intense and rigorous in to music and art in general at the Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York. If you thought jazz was a music form that run on flow and improvisation, think again. The first thing we see is 19 year old Andrew (Miles Teller) practicing with on the drums when jazz conductor, Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), walks in on him. It appears Fletcher liked what he saw as Andrew he picks him for the school’s studio jazz band. Fletcher is always clad in black and appearing out of the shadows and a shout out to his work out plan, he truly is in great shape. We get an inkling of Fletcher’s ethos when he tells a certain Reno Club cymbal-throwing story which involved a young Charlie Parker and brings to the fore the films central idea; are misery, embarrassment and strife necessary for harnessing greatness and even if it does do the ends justify the means?
From the minute Andrew enters Fletcher’s class, he is no longer in a music school but a SEAL boot camp. I think now is the time to drop the Wittertainment quip; Jaws is not about sharks, Chef not about food, Tinker, Tailor… not about spies and Whiplash is definitely not about music. Fletcher is not a jazz conductor, he is a reincarnation of the drill sergeants from Full Metal Jacket and An Officer and a Gentleman, a green musician’s terror. He runs his band like a German machine and when an instrument is off key, not a person, he spews pure venom. I have always found JK Simons amusing from Juno to Burn After Reading to even his turn as JJ but do I find a pure bully who hurls homosexual slurs, tramples on genuine grief and just breaks his students physically, emotionally and psychologically amusing? Hell yes I do! I laughed a lot and really enjoyed the scenes of pure abuse and humiliation like I enjoy only the first half of Full Metal Jacket.
Simons plays Fletcher as some form of winking devil with twinkly eyes and we are somewhat allured by him but Andrew certainly is with his drive and ambition has rushing to sell his soul even after the emotional dressing down and the hurling of a chair at his head – even stuff like that didn’t happen in boot camps. Andrew sees Fletcher as the standard and sheds sweat, tears and blood to match up to him. Simons is terrific and everyone has raved about him and he is a shoe in for an Oscar but he doesn’t leave Teller in the dust. Teller puts forth an internalized showing that burst forth with gruelling intensity when he gets behind the drums. Fletcher rubs off Andrew and we begin to see him thrive on the pressure but rooting for him becomes harder. He develops such a solitary focus as everything else including a nice girl he hooks up with, played by Melissa Benoist, who becomes an obstacle to his ambition.
Chazelle handles his central characters with some sly skill and their chemistry thrives on such friction that makes it easy for him to shock us and he does several times like when Andrew hauls himself from a car crash, bloodied and battered with his drumsticks in frayed hands just to make it to a concert on time for Fletcher. He pushes that prodigious student – master to such extremes that builds up to the films simultaneously jarring and electrifyingly gyrating finale that puts and exclamation point on this terrific film. Chazelle shot Whiplash in just 19 days which is truly impressive and the reigning question of how mentors should forge talent is left with us. This film has style, zest and electrifying performances and it will take your breath away I guarantee.