Monday, October 13, 2014

New movie review: Whiplash

Miles Teller is driven to the brink by J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.

We all have it – that one thing we must get right and not just right but perfect. Whether it is trimming the hedges or detailing the car or picking out today’s outfit, there is a task for each and every one of us that if left incomplete or imperfect, will act like a sliver under a fingernail. It is always there, always nagging, begging for relief, but the more you dig at it, the more it hurts. And when you finally get that sliver out – as you must – you realize you may have done more damage to yourself than it did.

I suspect artists feel this more than most. For writers, it is choosing the perfect word, for painters, it is the perfect brush stroke, and for musicians, it is the perfect note, perfect rhythm, and perfect sound. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is about one musician’s pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that can be both a blessing and a curse to those with the desire to succeed. But as desire turns into obsession, it becomes harder to tell where the blessing ends and the curse begins.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a nice enough kid whose life passion is to be one of the great jazz drummers, on par with Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Elvin Jones. His dogged pursuit of mastery is the backbone of the story, and Teller wears that obsession like a glove. Teller is a young star on the rise but at risk of typecasting, either in young-adult material (The Spectacular Now, the Divergent series) or in bro-comedies (21 & Over, That Awkward Moment, Project X).

Soon, Teller will be in multiplexes as Mr. Fantastic in the new Fantastic Four reboot, and more power to him, but let us hope he finds time for more movies such as this. Teller is astounding as he flips his cool-guy persona on its head and inhabits the spirit of an insular artist consumed by equal parts self-confidence and self-doubt, a combination that can only lead to self-destruction.

If Andrew does not destroy himself, though, his instructor will be more than willing to do it for him. J.K. Simmons (Juno, Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films) plays Fletcher, who becomes Andrew’s teacher and tormentor. His style is to bully, berate, and batter the best out of his students. Many of us have encountered a parent, teacher, or coach who buys into this philosophy. Some even respond to it and encourage it. But make no mistake, results or not, it is abuse.

Though the film is set at a performing arts college, writer-director Chazelle has stated the story is partly inspired by his experience as a high school band student. Chazelle infuses the film with the energy and anxiety of someone pushed to his limits but without the power to stop. At any moment, it feels like the movie may spin irretrievably out of control, but it never does. No matter how intensely off balance we may feel, Chazelle and his editor, Tom Cross, keep the story moving with the precision of a great drum performance.

Fletcher is a transformative role for Simmons, an actor who often plays characters with rough edges. Here, Simmons is all edge as Fletcher sharpens his knives on Andrew, waiting for the moment when he can plunge one into his student’s chest. He is the kind of man who can unleash a barrage of invectives meant to cut you to the bone but who believes down to his core he is doing the right thing. It is not a caricature, though it would be easy to make it so. It is simply a frightening manifestation of misplaced power and irrepressible ego.

The movie has been described as Full Metal Jacket for the jazz set, which is neither unfair nor entirely accurate. In Stanley Kubrick’s great Vietnam War movie, the drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey is a hard man whose job is to create hard men and turn them into U.S. Marines. Fletcher is a jazz teacher. At the same time, for those operating at the highest levels of concert jazz, every time they take the stage, it can feel like marching into battle.

But this is not a war picture, no. About halfway through, it becomes clear in structure and style that this is a sports movie with jazz substituting for football. Teller is the talented young quarterback, and Simmons is the tough-as-nails head coach. There are battles for the starting job on the team, there are training montages and grueling practices, and there is even a big game.

At one point, Andrew and his father, played by the always-nice-to-see Paul Reiser, are having dinner with family. Andrew’s cousins are more outwardly successful types and participating in activities society recognizes as difficult and worthy of praise. One is a talented Division III college football player, whom Andrew verbally runs down. The cousin’s response is to suggest Andrew try just once to do what he does. Andrew insults the table and storms off.

We live in a world where football players are idolized for their passion, their dedication, their brute strength, and their willingness to sacrifice their minds and bodies for some greater purpose – winning a football game, I suppose. We do not look at concert musicians the same way, and there are myriad reasons for that. But at the end of the day, people like Andrew give up just as much for our entertainment and their own immortality.

While it should probably have been clear all along, we now realize the full effects of football on players and the destructive force it is during and after their careers, and we are duly outraged. We do not and probably never will see professional musicians in the same light, but to be the best, to attain the perfection they seek, these musicians must give themselves over to a power that may destroy them.

Some will be beaten, and some will transcend. None will come out unscathed. Damage done. Perfection achieved. But what is left? Whiplash does not pretend to have the answer, but it is enough that it has the guts to ask the question.

See it? Yes.

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