Sunday, October 19, 2014

Film Review: "Whiplash"

Rare is that film with a definitive soundtrack in its most literal sense. The music on “Whiplash” tracks the film’s cinematic highs and lows, and it is key to manipulating the audience’s pulse, towards that applause at the end once the film’s greatness descends upon their consciousness. The movie ended on such an extremely high, WTF note that you can’t help but lay back on your seat and breathe out “that was so gooood”. And that’s exactly what it was. Kudos to wunderkid Damien Chazelle for writing and directing such a smart, wildly engaging movie that was at times slightly unnerving.

The movie opens on Andrew, played superbly by Miles Teller, practicing on his drum kit. When in walks music professor, Fletcher. The venerable character actor, JK Simmons plays the borderline-“abusive” (perspective shifts in this movie, so will mine) professor with a fearless intensity. They begin a strange back-and-forth akin to a mating ritual of sorts – if you like your significant other to be rude, profane, and incredibly overbearing. The film progresses into an eventual unraveling by both men, and that progression is both riveting and alarming. Both actors throw themselves into their roles, with Teller literally attacking a drum kit, and Simmons displaying an acting masterclass in both severity and subtlety. Teller’s Andrew literally transforms from shy, unsure freshman jazz drummer into an obstinate and entitled prick of a teenager. Both characters are unlikeable yet unassailable – both traits that the audience (myself definitely included) has somehow latched on to in the face of a gripping script, and thus turned them into a duo worth rooting for.

Despite the director’s admission that some aspects of the film have been “heightened” for drama, the well-grounded screenplay coupled with the fervent commitment displayed by the actors to their roles have given the film an air of credibility. Of course music artistes are fierce and competitive and eventual loners in a universe where success is measured by acclaim and perfection. And of course music teachers, like any other reputable coach or mentor, can dish out tough love on par with a drill sergeant. The belief that genius can somehow be earned is something that resonates with the Joe/Jane Everyman who is sitting in the theater and watching this movie.

The film's peak takes place in Carnegie Hall for a JVC concert. Fletcher intentionally mindfucks Andrew to the point of the latter crashing and burning in front of the eyes of a high-profile and discerning audience. And then, after walking offstage into the arms of his beleaguered father (played with both a tender and stern hand by Paul Reiser), Andrew returns to his stool and proceeds to play “Caravan” – that piece that launched his obsession for that elusive double-time swing and launched the dysfunctional relationship he currently shares with Fletcher. Then there’s this wonderful moment where he is a student no longer, and instead morphs into a bandleader as his father watches wide-eyed from the wings and Fletcher’s rage simmers underneath the stage lights. He tells the bass player “I’ll cue you in”. And he does. And the rest of the band follows suit, avoiding disgrace and saving face. And Andrew most beautifully mouths “Fuck you” to his former mentor.

Or was he?

For another beautiful scene takes place, as Fletcher recognizes that there is a MOMENT happening and he is quick to take advantage of it. “Sadist-enablers” is what I call both of them. They are both perfect and wrong for each other. The dysfunction is off the charts between these two, even though I understand their complex and acute need for each other to survive and thrive in the unrelenting professional world of jazz music. Discovering that Fletcher has finally found his Charlie Parker is as terrifying as it is mind-blowing.