Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Whiplash" review

There's a moment near the very end of "Whiplash" that confirmed to me that this wasn't just a good movie, but a great movie. JK Simmons's character Terrence Fletcher is conducting his band and Miles Teller's Andrew is on the drums. At this point of the movie, and this is not a spoiler, it's safe to say these two characters hate each other. But when Miles Teller wails away at the drums with perfect precision,  both characters realize something: they need each other. Finally, they've come to an understanding with each other and if they were to continue this relationship, there's no telling what they could accomplish.

"Whiplash" is not just about music, it's not just about the will to be great, it's about encouragement/discouragement. What's constantly recited in "Whiplash" is how famed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head by his teacher and it never phased him. Terrence Fletcher comes off like a mad genius, but in some instances he just seems mad (as in "crazy"). Andrew wants to be one of the greatest jazz drummers that ever lived and Fletcher challenges him at every turn. He slaps him, he promises him a spot in the band and then takes it away, and he makes him play for hours on end until his hands start to bleed.

Are Fletcher's methods outdated? Some would say yes, I would certainly agree that he crosses a few lines. But I certainly believe his sincerity when he says "The worst two words you could ever tell a person is 'good job.'" I believe that Fletcher believes that his methods are the only way you can turn a good musician into a great one. And perhaps he's right, maybe the world's lacking in truly great talent because nobody's willing to throw a cymbal at someone's head anymore.

Andrew is a completely driven individual and while Fletcher's methods aren't for everyone, they just might be suitable for Andrew. Andrew might cower at first when Fletcher first scolds him, but then he responds by practicing on his kit all night. He does everything he can to get better: he isolates himself for long periods of time, he breaks up with his girlfriend, he doesn't make any friends. Trying to become one of the greats is a very lonely proposition, but that's what Andrew wants. And thanks to Fletcher's volatile style of teaching, that's what he'll get.

"Whiplash" explodes with energy and intensity, particularly when Miles Teller and JK Simmons are acting opposite each other. This movie is very much a two-hander. Terrence Fletcher is the character JK Simmons has been waiting to play for his entire career and he completely nails it. A lesser actor could've made Fletcher go completely over-the-top and turn into self-parody, but JK Simmons instead plays the character with all the right notes.

And while he gets plenty of deserved praise, his co-star deserves just as much attention. Miles Teller has been on the rise the last few years, particularly thanks to his turn in last year's "The Spectacular Now," but he brings forth his best work here in "Whiplash" and reminds me a little bit of young, mid-'80s Tom Cruise (circa "Color of Money"), though he doesn't quite have Cruise's perfect blend of douchiness and charisma. Instead, Teller's character comes off as completely likable and sympathetic even when he coldly shuts down his girlfriend. While writer/director Damien Chazelle doesn't exactly give Andrew much to work with when it comes to character details, Miles Teller brings something to the character, non-verbally that tells you everything you need to know about him.

This was a very impressive movie indeed and just as much praise belongs to editor Tom Cross, whose handling of the big concert sequences are so exhilarating to watch. And while the film kinda loses a little bit of spark in the scenes where Teller is away from his drumkit and the characters who aren't Andrew or Terrence Fletcher are barely given much to do, because Teller and Simmons are so excellent, nothing else hardly matters. This is a remarkable debut film and the movie's final scene will rock your socks off (or should I say jazz your socks off?).

There's something to be said about the specificity of this movie. I've said it before, I love movies that show us a specific world in a specific place and time. For the rest of the world, nothing Andrew and Terrence Fletcher does particularly matters. But in their world, nothing could be more important. For 100 minutes, for me, nothing was more important than watching Andrew try to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. And the fact that this movie actually made me want to go out and listen to a few jazz records, that's an amazing accomplishment in itself.

Grade: A-

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