Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: "Whiplash"

“Whiplash” is ostensibly about music, but actually it’s an expedition into human depravity -- and greatness.

Andrew Neyman is a 19-year-old drumming prodigy who gets tapped by a brilliant, domineering conductor to be lead stick man for the top jazz band at the world’s best music conservatory, then is subjected to a barrage of abuse and sadism that is not to be believed. The film is the tale of their relationship: student and teacher, victim and bully, innocent and despoiler.

We loathe the teacher, of course, but then watch with a combination of fascination and revulsion as Andrew absorbs the man’s foulness and starts to become a reflection of him. This amazing film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, dares to ask prickly questions about what it takes to be a great artist, or a great anything.

Do suffering and accomplishment necessarily go hand-in-hand? Should people of exceptional talent and drive worry about being a good person? If you are the best there is at something, does that excuse being a colossal jerk? Can you reach the pinnacle of a career without stepping on others?

These are the sorts of things we ask ourselves in the blackest night, and tremble at the answers.

How bad is Lawrence Fletcher? Imagine the nastiest teacher you ever had, multiple it by 1,000, heap in a mountain of personal vindictiveness, pettiness, egomania and cruelty, and you would still not be close to reaching the horror of the conductor of the Studio Band at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City.

Fletcher rules the jazz program like a tyrant. Students and even other instructors bow their heads and fall silent when he strides into a practice room, spewing expletives and belittling judgment. Andrew, a freshman languishing as the alternate drummer in the second-tier band, is surprised and thrilled when Fletcher taps him to move to the top of the program. He’s even more flattered when the man chats him up and offers encouragement.

“Have fun,” Fletcher often says, though his chief vocation involves depriving everyone around him of it.

Andrew’s first practice session is instructive. The top drummer (Nate Lang) treats him like a flunky, there to turn pages and tune the snare drum. Fletcher throws out a trombonist when he admits to being off-pitch, even though it was actually another player -- to Fletcher, it’s worse to not know if you’re out of tune than fail to confess it.

Given a shot in the chair, Andrew is ridden by Fletcher to match his tempo, even though he seems to be spot on. Fletcher screams and spits, even slaps the boy around, then mocks Andrew when he weeps: “Oh my dear God, are you one of those single-tear people?”

Fletcher is, of course, a work of total fiction. In our modern age of lawsuits, anonymous professor ratings and touch-button video, the idea that someone like him could survive and thrive in such a high perch is preposterous. But J.K. Simmons never plays the man as a cartoon. Even though Fletcher’s antics are perpetually over the top, Simmons keeps him grounded, believable and utterly terrifying. It’s a masterful performance.

(I am astonished to learn that in his long and busy career, Simmons has never been nominated for an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe or individual Screen Actors Guild award. That’s about to change, I deem.)

Miles Teller, one of the finest actors of his young generation, holds the movie together as the sensitive, malleable Andrew. He throws himself into his work, determined to be the greatest jazz drummer since Buddy Rich, practicing until his hands bleed. Then he dunks them in ice water, bandages them up, and practices some more.

Andrew does this because he’s afraid of Fletcher, but also because he discovers inside himself a bedrock of determination, a will to succeed that matches his conductor’s. For a time they even appear to be in synch, as Andrew pushes away his adoring father and new girlfriend (Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist) to focus on his music.

But Fletcher is always there to raise the standard another notch, demand more, and throw nails in his pupil’s path. He insists he does this to help Andrew become the next Charlie Parker, relating a story about the young Bird having a cymbal thrown at his head as motivation. The baleful gleam in his eye, though, suggests he merely enjoys the torture for its own sake.

A bravura tale of antagonism and ambition, “Whiplash” is a masterpiece in double time.

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