Monday, January 26, 2015

"Whiplash": The Feeling You'll Have By The Credits

Now In Theaters, Available on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 24, 2015

Oscar Nominations

Best Picture
Best Adapted Screenplay - Damien Chazelle
Best Supporting Actor - J.K. Simmons
Best Film Editing - Tom Cross
Best Sound Mixing

Given the Academy’s propensity this year (and, let’s face it, most other years) to lionize standard stories that adhere to the tropes it likes and de-emphasize films that break from the mold by subverting those tropes, I wasn’t expecting Whiplash to be as amazing as it turned out to be.  The plot at surface level appears to yet another student-mentor tale, akin to Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver, and yet director and writer Damien Chazelle has crafted something uniquely brilliant, forcing the audience to contemplate the very nature of art and the means by which artists attain it.

The story is that of first-year music student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), a solitary young man with one goal: to be the best damn drummer ever.  While practicing one day, he is confronted by the school’s infamous Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who, though berating and dismissive, eventually recruits Andrew into his prodigal jazz band class.  Fletcher begins to show a more human and understanding side to Andrew, but only as a means to pull the rug out from underneath him and attack his slightest inadequacies.  Fletcher even goes so far as to throw a chair at Andrew and make him practice for hours on end until he can master the correct tempo.  This in turn pushes Andrew to become better at his craft, but consequently pushes away everyone who is close to him and starts him down a road of self-destruction.

The central question the film poses is whether or not Fletcher’s actions are justified, and it is remarkably agnostic on this point, portraying the events in ways that emphasize both arguments for and against abuse as a means of enabling artistic greatness.  As Fletcher memorably says, there are no two words more harmful than “good job.”  However, is that push towards greatness worth the potential ruination of the artist’s life, or the lives of those who simply aren’t cut out to achieve at that level?  The film provides no answers, but lets the audience take everything in to reach its own conclusion.

And yet, the film is not devoid of passion in either of its perspectives.  When Andrew is suffering, we see him sweat, bleed, and casually destroy the social connections that define most of our existences.  And yet, when he’s playing well, we see a god on the stool, playing just as well as the masters and destroying the boundaries of what we thought within his limits.  I didn’t believe that a film about music could have me cringing on the edge of my seat, by Whiplash has some of the most intense editing and sound mixing in recent memory, turning every drum performance Andrew gives into a waiting game to see if he can maintain his speed and grace.  When he stumbles, we breathe a sigh of disappointment, but are thankful that his intense exertion has momentarily ended.  When he succeeds, the intensity of the performance is so overwhelming as to seemingly defy reality.

“Whiplash” is the name of a jazz piece central to the film’s musical performances, but it is also a great description of the feeling the film will evoke in you.  Whether watching Fletcher’s methodical and sadistic manipulation of Andrew, or watching Andrew alternately crash and soar in his chosen craft, this film is an emotional roller coaster that has few true contemporaries.  The climax in particular will leave you awe-struck, proving Damien Chazelle as one of the greats in contemporary cinematic direction.  I recognize that at the time of writing this film is not playing in many theaters, but if you cannot get to a theater, I wholeheartedly recommend finding this film as soon as it hits digital release or physical disc format.  It truly deserves its place in the Best Picture nominations.

Have a favorite mentor flick?  Share it in the comments below.

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