Whiplash (NYFF Review): Extreme Percussion

Photo Credit: http://photos.vanityfair.com/2014/01/27/1390847370439_whiplash-still.png

A musical conservatory becomes a ferocious battleground in this exhilarating drama from writer-director Damien Chazelle.

Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places, but more often than not it arrives in the form of a guide or a teacher. We’ve seen countless depictions of these hardworking mentors who somehow manage to get their discouraged pupils to realize their full potential. Films like Dead Poets SocietyFreedom Writers, and The Great Debaters all feature educators who are able to rouse the downtrodden into taking action.

Whiplash—the second feature from Chazelle after Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench—takes this concept and spins it on its head, resulting in an unsettling, troublesome, and completely captivating drama. One of the film’s most interesting qualities is its ambiguity. With no clear distinction between right and wrong, the source of inspiration becomes fascinatingly controversial.

Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) stars as Andrew Neyman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who’s studying at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. He aspires to be as revered as the greats, often listening to Buddy Rich albums in his downtime. What’s more, he has the ambition and the follow-through to get to the top. Soon enough, Andrew catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an esteemed conductor at the school whom every student wants to work with. Andrew is lucky enough to be picked to perform in Terence’s illustrious studio band. Unfortunately for him, it’s the stuff of a musician’s nightmare.

Musical films tend to highlight the magic behind the sound; the beauty of the players and performers creating sweet melodies. Whiplash serves as the antithesis to this, treating jazz rehearsal as if it were a cutthroat bootcamp, with Terence as the drill instructor. His classes are grueling, and not just because he’s a perfectionist. He plays mind games with his students, screams in their faces, and even physically assaults them in some twisted effort to wring out a bit of talent. Simmons plays him with a creeping monstrosity, so that you’re never quite sure what terrible thing he’s going to do next. For an actor who’s often played gruff, but sympathetic paternal figures, this role feels like a dark and exciting departure.

As Andrew, Teller brings his usual charisma, but also an unnerving determinism lends itself to the film’s enigmatic tone. Andrew and Terence face off against each other several times, but just when you think you have their dynamic figured out, it shifts ever so slightly. Andrew makes great sacrifices to his personal life—including jettisoning a potential girlfriend (Glee‘s Melissa Benoist)—in order to succeed, but he commits to his choices wholeheartedly. The question the film poses is: is Terence truly a tyrant out to extort his students’ misery, or is he really just doing what’s necessary to get results. Arguments for both cases are presented compellingly, making the film’s open-ended nature incredibly thought-provoking.

Of course, the real star of this film is the sound. Everything from the noise of the students’ notebooks opening to the blaring of their instruments is amplified to showcase the daily staccato of their lives. During the musical sequences, Chazelle whips the camera around at a pace that’s as frenetic and unpredictable as the jazz that’s being played, making for a thrilling viewing experience. The instruments are filmed to appear almost as extensions of the students themselves, and why shouldn’t they be? With this demanding of an instructor, they might as well all glue their horns and drumsticks to their hands.

The movie’s extended band scenes often make it feel longer than its 106 minute runtime, but it moves along at an otherwise brisk pace. Besides, with this talented of a cast, and this engrossing of a story, it’s hard to ever take your eyes off the screen. Whiplash doesn’t officially open in theaters until October 10th, but after doing so well on the festival circuit, I wouldn’t be surprised if the awards season buzz has already started. Grade: A-


By Mike Papirmeister

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