Friday, February 6, 2015
So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.
We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?
Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.
Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, has made a truly personal and affecting movie and announces himself as a filmmaker to really watch.
Though I have many movies to catch up to from 2014, I have a hard time imagining that Whiplash won't top my list of the best movies of last year. It is an inspiring, thought provoking, often funny, horrifying, thrilling time at the movies.