Friday, December 19, 2014

An Emotional Jolt - and an Amazing Film

When the final image of Whiplash faded to black, my head hit the back of my chair and I was jolted back into my seat - it was as though I was hit in the stomach. Whiplash has that type of emotional punch; it's pure cinema that grabs the viewer from the first frame and never lets go. It's the best film I've seen this year.

The story is quite simple, which is fitting for a film that is not plot-driven, but rather, one that makes the most of the emotions of its two main characters. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a college-aged young man who enrolls in the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan (the actual name of the school is fictional, but certainly based on Julliard). He's a very talented jazz drummer with dreams of becoming the next Buddy Rich (we hear and watch old tapes of Rich performing at various times in the film; Neyman listens to these tapes and memorizes every note).

His instructor at the school is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a crazed madman/genius, who instills fear and discipline in his students. He doesn't see that what he's doing is anything out of the ordinary, believing that he can drive a musician to his personal best, "beyond his limits" as he says in the film. One scene of Fletcher barking orders to Neyman about playing a particular section of one jazz composition faster and faster until it hardly seems humanly possible is a riveting moment in this film and a clear sign of both Fletcher's method as well as Neyman's drive to be the best.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle takes us on a wild roller coaster of a ride in this film; the title "Whiplash" a well-chosen one (it's also the name of a jazz composition heard several times in the film). Not only are the class sessions frantically hypnotic in the cross-cutting between the images of Fletcher hurling insults at Neyman and the young drummer doing all he can to follow his instructions, the mood shifts of the film are quite startling as well (editor Tom Cross performed brilliantly on this film).

"His bark is worse than his bite," is what one student tells Neyman, referring to Fletcher and indeed, there are two scenes in the film where we see a softer side of the man. He may be a bit of a madman, but he is human. Likewise, there are scenes of Neyman setting aside his drums for a moment or two, to attend a movie with his father or to nervously approach a young woman he has had his eyes on for some time.

But it is the relationship of teacher and student and the scenes in the classroom that form the heart of this film. Think of the most intense, the most difficult teacher you've ever had - and now multiply that times six - and you'll start to get an idea of the aura of Fletcher. His motives are clear - he demands the best from his students and if he has to, he'll belittle them. His insults are largely unprintable here, the sexual connotations and humiliating language he uses are extreme. He's also not above getting right in someone's face, at one point, reducing Neyman to tears. Simmons has a field day in this role, dressed in black turtleneck and slacks, his bald head giving him the look of a driven madman. It's a tour-de-force performance.

Teller has a less flashy role, but he is excellent, especially when we witness his confusion. Is he really willing to take all the abuse of his teacher? Teller is believable throughout the film, almost always presenting an air of remarkable self-confidence. That will alienate him from almost everyone in his life, but he realizes the sacrifices he must make if he is to be the best. This is a determined, yet scared individual and Teller brings this across very well in his portrayal.

The big band jazz performances in Whiplash are excellent; if you only went to see this film for its music, you'd probably be satisfied. But the process of how the final performances come about are what gives this film its drive and inner core. The relationship of teacher and student has rarely been more intensely examined on film.

Besides being a powerful, emotional, primal experience that succeeds brilliantly - the final musical sequence, some twelve to fifteen minutes in length is wonderfully realized - this is a film with a rich message. It asks all of us how far we are willing to go to realize our dreams. True success may actually result in us falling a bit short of those dreams - then again, we may realize out highest goals after all. Whiplash certainly poses the thought that whether or not we reach our ultimate goal, the journey, no matter how anguished or stress-filled, is an examination in our lives that helps us better understand who we really are. This is not the first film to ever make this type of analysis, but it's easily one of the best to ever do so. Bravo to Damien Chazelle for making such a powerful story that's told with such cinematic flair. I can't wait to see Whiplash again!

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