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The impulse and need to give all for your art is both idealized and questioned in Whiplash, the potent and obviously very personal second film from writer-director Damien Chazelle. As controlled and composed as his black-and-white 2009 debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench was free-form and impressionistic, this one also is also centered on jazz music, but specifically on the struggle to maximize one’s artistic potential and the question of whether it’s worth it. With Miles Teller once again impressing as a young man going through the wringer, the drama, which began life as a three-sequence film that won the U.S. short film jury prize at Sundance 2013, is very narrowly focused, but both confirms Chazelle as a notable talent and stands to make a modest impression commercially in specialized release.
Anyone who’s ever had a high school or college teacher make it a point to manipulate or mess with students’ lives will no doubt have relatable, and possibly painful, memories revived by this vivid portrait of a music school at which the program, run by its star instructor, closely resembles the boot camp presided over by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket.
The shaved-headed martinet in charge is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who gets away with bullying, insulting, terrorizing and abusing his talented charges because the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan is ranked No. 1 in the country. At 19, Andrew Neyman (Teller) is a dedicated drummer who idolizes Buddy Rich and has taken to heart the transformation of Charlie Parker from good to great after a traumatic incident that induced him to sacrifice a year to intensive practice.
Therefore, Andrew is not only willing but even eager to take what Fletcher dishes out since it forces him to suffer for a cause he chooses to believe will be worth it. The jazz ensemble Fletcher leads consists of a fluctuating group of talented young men (the only woman is dispatched almost at once) who come and go at the teacher’s whim. The early rehearsal scenes are grippingly portrayed; Fletcher deliberately demands the near-impossible, eviscerating any and all who make a mistake and even those who don’t; he sets Andrew up by promoting him from page-turner to featured drummer and then demoting him back again, making him cry in the process; he blasts his charges with inflammatory sexual and religious insults and pushes Andrew to practice and rehearse until his hands bleed; he even, reenacting the Parker episode, throws a cymbal at him.
Fletcher’s all-or-nothing approach can be excused under the modern parlance of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that’s the way Andrew takes it. In a convenient psychological formulation, the young man is extra-motivated so as not to follow the example of his father (Paul Reiser), a failed writer. So impressionable is Andrew at his age that he adopts his leader’s rough manner of speaking, even with a sweet, vulnerable girl (Melissa Benoist) he’s begun dating, crushing her with a brutal termination of their relationship because she’ll be an obstacle on his path to greatness. In the same vein, he alienates relatives and old high school acquaintances with withering put-downs of their own perfectly reasonable accomplishments.
The notion of “anything for art,” a recurring creative theme of the past couple of centuries and perhaps most vividly dramatized onscreen in The Red Shoes, seems rather in eclipse in this era of instant celebrity, and the preoccupation here with jazz of the mid-20th century might prove similarly uninviting to mainstream younger audiences today. The antithesis of “let’s-put-on-a-show” fluff, Whiplash, which takes its title from a compelling composition by the late Hank Levy, is about the wages of all-out sacrifice and commitment; it may not endorse Fletcher’s utter ruthlessness (the man clearly has emotional and psychological issues that are not dealt with here), but nor does it take a soft-headed, blandly feel-good stance; as Fletcher cuttingly remarks at one point, the lamest two words in the English language are, “good job.”
After a couple of convulsive dramatic swings, the climactic and, from a musical performance point of view, cathartic sequence incisively portrays a passage from mere industriousness to artistry, from climbing the mountain to attaining the summit. Unfortunately, there are also some practical question marks concerning the concert itself — why there have been no rehearsals for such a big event and how the participants react as things play out — that distract from its central purpose.
Teller, who greatly impressed in last year’s Sundance entry The Spectacular Now, does so again in a performance that is more often simmering than volatile. However, one misses any scene in which Andrew and the other guys might sit around talking about their tormenting teacher, sharing their misery and speculating as to what the hell made him act like this.
For his part, Simmons has the great good fortune for a character actor to have here found a co-lead part he can really run with, which is what he excitingly does with a man who is profane, way out of bounds and, like many a good villain, utterly compelling. That said, the character is only taken so far in the writing; from Iago onward, there is often a latent or frustrated sexual impulse behind such malignant behavior, as Fletcher indulges in here, but none such is suggested, nor is any private life indicated at all.
The music track is full of riches. Visually and technically, Whiplash is leaps and bounds beyond Guy and Madeline, which was made under student film conditions.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition — opening night)
Production: Bold Films, Blumhouse/Right of Way Productions
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Helen Estabrook, Jason Blum, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Jason Reitman, Couper Samuelson, Gary Michael Walters, Jeanette Volturno-Brill
Director of photography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Melanie Paizis Jones
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Tom Cross
Music: Justin Hurwitz
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