Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Double-Time Swing: Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

The thing to understand before you see Whiplash is that it isn’t at all like Amadeus or Inside Llewyn Davis or Ray – not just because it isn’t a biopic, but also because it shares little with those films in their exploration and exultation of a life spent making music. Instead it’s a harsh, heart-pounding ride through the dark side of music, that plays more like a thriller than a movie about jazz drums.

The film follows drum major Andrew (Miles Teller) in his struggle to become the number one percussionist at the fictional, Julliard-esque music academy he attends in New York. As a character later points out, if Andrew is the best at his school, then that means he’s the best in New York, which means he’s among the best in the world – and he will accept nothing less. The person who is both prime motivator and immovable obstacle to this goal is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tyrannical bandleader of the school’s competitive studio ensemble, who takes Andrew under his wing and nearly breaks him in the process.

Andrew has the same aquiline nose and pockmarked boyishness of a young Elvis, but none of the charm or sex appeal. He is awkward around family, has no friends, and bungles a romantic relationship that might have kept him level-headed. His singular ambition to be one of the "greats" of jazz (like his hero Buddy Rich) pushes away those he loves, but to him, it's a price worth paying not to mention the tax that Fletcher extracts from him in the literal form of blood, sweat, and tears. Simmons is intensely mercurial as Fletcher, supportive and encouraging one moment, explosively violent the next. He taps into that one terrifying educator everyone has experienced at least once, who coaxes greatness out of his pupils through torturous methods. When he brings Andrew aside before his first practice with the ensemble, telling him to try his best and have fun, it's painfully obvious that the forthcoming scene will be anything but fun for Andrew. Sure enough, the scene is a showcase of synchronicity between Teller and Simmons, one as towering as the other is pathetic, while the rest of the band can only listen in cringing silence. Andrew is told he must "earn the part," and while it takes him most of the film to do so, the two leads earn our unequivocal attention from that point forward. The script also provides Simmons with plenty of mix-and-match profanity to chew on, which he does with snarling satisfaction. 

Miles Teller in Whiplash
Music informs not only the story, but the action: shots are paced to match Andrew's percussive strikes and the ebb and flow of the melody dictates the tone and pacing of almost every scene. Scenes without music feel empty, reinforcing the irritation and boredom Andrew feels while conversing with others, wishing he were sitting at the kit instead. Damien Chazelle’s direction is good but the editing by Tom Cross is exceptional, and it’s reinforced by creative camerawork that sweeps in circles around Andrew’s stool, or peeks up at him from around the high hat. The film is never stronger than when Andrew is behind the cymbals, with Fletcher glaring on a few feet away. The almost wordless climax is not to put too fine a point on it virtuosic in its intensity and pacing. Andrew and Fletcher dominate the stage in an unspoken power struggle, centered around the music the band is playing live for a competition crowd. 

Unlike jazz, though, Whiplash isn’t improvisational at heart: it's minutely coordinated affair, down to every line of dialogue and blocking movement. As much as it is about the competitive, combative side of professional music, it’s not very much at all about jazz. There is a short, insignificant scene in 2004’s Collateral in which an assassin played by Tom Cruise invites a jazz musician to share a drink after his set, where the trumpet player relates a story about meeting Miles Davis. Cruise’s character eventually kills him and the movie barrels on, but it has always stuck in my mind as a strangely resonant scene, almost out of place in a film otherwise concerned with shooting and terse action dialogue, that speaks far more to the true nature of jazz than Whiplash does with its entire run-time. Chazelle could have made a film about basketball, or physics – the only thing that sets it apart is the quality of its performances. Lip service paid to Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker do not necessarily a jazz movie make. 

Whiplash both benefits and suffers from its narrow focus. There is really only one instance of true character growth, and it is as predictable as it is well-executed. The film's pedigree as an 18-minute short piece which debuted at Sundance is evident in its paucity of content: no more than 18 minutes is really necessary to tell this story, which feels like a snapshot of a young musician's life rather than the formative tale it purports to be. But that also makes the screenplay lean and mean, with little room for aimless reflection, tight as the snare Andrew slams his fist through in a Rocky-esque moment of frustration while training. Fletcher expects nothing less than perfection from him, but I’m more lenient: his film is thrilling and tense, if a little one-note.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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