Movie Review: Whiplash

Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Blu-ray | DVD
Sony Pictures Classics
Theatrical Release Date: October 10, 2014
Home Video Release Date: February 24, 2015

In a key scene in Whiplash, the ferociously passionate music teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is at once intimidating, forceful, powerful, and unapologetic, tells Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), the young, puckish stars-in-his-eyes wannabe-one-of-the-greats jazz drummer, that one of the worst things you can say to someone is “good job.” But with this film, which has been a critical darling paramount of some of the great films of all time in the modern age, director and writer Damien Chazelle has done much, much more than a good job. In fact, he’s done an eye-opening, jaw-dropping superb one.

At first glance, Whiplash seems almost like an ABC Afterschool Special, at least in its narrative. But while one indeed can make the comparisons, all traces of any formulaic narrative that could have easily been wrung from a much less perceptive and rather hackneyed director, are virtually non-existent in Chazelle’s hands. Imagine an ABC Afterschool Special written by someone like Paddy Chayefsky, and now you move a little bit closer into the kind of territory that Whiplash manifests, not only as a theatrical presentation, but also as a memorable tale of spit, grit, and the ability to push one’s self as far as one can go, and even beyond that.

And that narrative, again, looks like a Rocky feelgood movie, but Chazelle plays the directions and offers the guidance that makes the film swing like a Buddy Rich solo, and also like a Buddy Rich solo, has intensity, expert pacing, and an eclectic flair for the spontaneous. The film stars Miles Teller just right as the young yet determined 19-year-old Neiman, who is enrolled at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, which is regarded as the best music school in the country. Neiman wants to be as good as people like the aforementioned Rich or the premier yet flawed and ultimately tragic saxophonist Charlie Parker, in terms of notoriety and true blue success that comes from blood, sweat, and tears applied again and again to the nth degree. For Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons — a character actor who has done a wide range of characterizations, from a neo-Nazi styled cretin on the HBO series Oz, to his lighthearted whimsy on the Farmers Insurance commercials — it’s exactly a high volume amount of blood, sweat, and tears that he requires from his students/players at Shaffer, especially Neiman, who, right from the start of the film, he sees as someone who may have potential to rise above the static norm and be a heavyweight player, even if Neiman himself needs to take the hard road to get there.

Through manipulation, raw language filled with epithets, and literally coming on like a bull in a china shop in just about every scene he’s in (and the dialogue in many of those scenes is instantly memorable and quotable, especially the “Rushing or Dragging” sequence), Fletcher uses whatever it takes to motivate his players. While he may be galaxies away from a politically correct stance of attack in doing it, Fletcher’s passion burns like a blowtorch on one’s skin; those who can take it, rise above it, while those that can’t, perish in his eyes instantaneously.

Simmons is able to get inside of Fletcher, with his intimidating bald dome, tight black shirt, and constant physical movements all done with quick editing to make him even more sinister; he breathes white hot intensity into the character. This is not a flash in the pan situation ala Steve Carrell as John Dupont in Foxcatcher, another film in which the well-to-do protagonist meets a road block in the pseudo obsessive patriarch, but the contrary. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is one of those iconic ones that comes along once every ten years. There’s no trickery, no green screen, no personal trainer, or any of the other trappings in which “stars” get made today. Simmons’ performance crackles and bristles like a swinging metronome, constant, turgid, grandiloquent, so tightly wound it’s like a tourniquet applied way too tight, all circulation stillborn. The film is like that also in many ways; it too reacts to Fletcher, and thus, he transcends the film. He’s a cross between R. Lee Ermey’s Kubrickian drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and Burgess Meredith’s salty vingear encrusted veteran of the ring, Mickey from Rocky. There’s a heart to all his Sturm und Drang; even Dr. Seuss’ iconic Grinch had something going on underneath all that sharp barbed wire, Terence Fletcher notwithstanding. But the genius of J.K. Simmons is how he never, ever let’s the character get maudlin, even during a sequence where Fletcher is driven to the brink of tears by some distressing news. There’s always the intense tension of anguish and snap, crackle, and pop always lurking just beneath whatever emotion Fletcher manifests, ready to pounce like the black panther that he is metaphorically. It’s a big part of what got Simmons a well-deserved Golden Globe award for Best Actor this month or and why he’s sure to snare the coveted Best Supporting Actor Oscar in a few weeks.

Chazelle is clearly a jazz fan or, better yet, a music fan. The title of the movie is borrowed from the Hank Levy-penned tune originally released in 1973 and expertly arranged by the late Don Ellis, who scored films like The French Connection and The Seven Ups and who remains one of the most paramount jazz artists ever to grace a stage or a snatch of sheet music. The fact that Chazelle uses this obscure yet wonderfully complex big band arrangement as the film’s centerpiece, with its double meanings via its namesake, and also uses the rousing Buddy Rich vehicle “Caravan” as the film’s capper, in a sequence which I won’t spoil here, shows that Chazelle didn’t just borrow a jazz fan’s iTunes list one day and take it from there. He seems to, as a director and writer, breathe this kind of sonic energy, and as a filmmaker, his direction is like riffing on a stand-up bass or an old Slingerland drum kit, where meters change at will, styles mesh and blend, and tonal atmosphere pushes and drives narrative and characterization. The music itself is a character; the drum set that Neiman uses throughout the film, be it his own or Fletcher’s, is also a whirling dervish of all trades, and it at once seems to be frightening, menacing, and finally full of redemption. We see, hear, feel, and absorb moments of Neiman, when he’s talking about his aspirations with his dad (played by a warm and congenial Paul Reiser), or when he shyly yet confidently asks out the girl (played by Melissa Benoist) who works at the concession stand at a movie theater he frequents, only to have his own self-obsession with not only becoming a master class big band jazz drummer, but also his obsession on trying to gain the respect of Fletcher, destroy that relationship, and it’s the solid work of Miles Teller that not only makes scenes believable and personable, but we believe in him as well.

By the film’s resolution, one realizes just how many clichés that could smother a film of this type of genre are virtually non-existent. Each time where a scene or sequence plays out where it could easy have denigrated into schmaltzy, feelgood metaphoric cinematic oatmeal, Chazelle goes another totally unexpected route. The best jazz does this as well — it never makes the listener, not for one second, think that they can tread down a clichéd roadmap it presents. There’s good reason why Miles Davis’ 1959 masterpiece A Kind of Blue was so successful and reached such a wide global audience, and remains one of the scant few jazz albums to jolt even the layman jazz fan: it burns with a spontaneity which equates total satisfaction. Even Fletcher expresses this kind of sentiment, during a scene in which he completely casts off what he calls “Starbucks Jazz,” the kind of innocuous, take-no-chances styles in which well-paid hacks are playing off of tepid charts, nary a creative spark to be found for miles, in any player. It is this danger that Fletcher, although with means quite questionable but ultimately rewarding, stresses. Like former President Harry Truman once eloquently put it, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” And this is sort of the crux of what makes Whiplash so successful on so many levels, even to an audience member. The movie doesn’t ask an audience member to be a jazz or even music aficionado; it doesn’t preach its tenets of narrative, but instead puts us right square in the middle and forces us to examine ourselves in a way. By the film’s end, one leaves the theater like one did after seeing a Rocky film, but when put into proper perspective, Whiplash is the furthest thing from a Rocky or even a Mr. Holland’s Opus-styled opus, and in essence, revolutionizes the genre.

Like a drum set with tightly wound drumheads and skins that are so taut they create a rigidity in tone, Whiplash is also that kind of movie. It’ll keep you guessing even when things are presented that make it look so clear. It’ll jolt you and make you think, smile, exhale, and question your own confidence and drive. How many movies like this one, that doesn’t have action per se, men in tights, or over the top villains give one the same kind of emotional guttural reactions as those kind of pop-corny features? Not too many, pilgrim. For my money, as good as The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Gone Girl, Birdman, and Boyhood are, and as overblown and disappointing as films like Inherent Vice and Unbroken were, and with American Sniper being somewhere in the middle, Whiplash is the film of 2014. It’s whip smart, and it’s a film that will remain in one’s consciousness and subconsciousness for quite some time, just like the best musicians, artists, and inspirational figures do, all across the creative landscape.

Whiplash, which has been nominated this year for the Academy Award for Best Picture, comes to Blu-ray and DVD on February 24, 2015.

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