Friday, January 2, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

In Search of Charlie Parker
Goose-Stepping to a Different Drummer

Whiplash is a movie about crazy people.

In other words, it's about musicians.

Not entirely fair, that. But, it would seem to be the attitude of Whiplash, which tells the story of an ambitious student (Miles Teller) at a music academy. A devotee of Buddy Rich (superb drummer, but a bit of a prick), Andrew Nieman is studying drums with the idea to perfect his technique, constantly practicing, hammering away at the skins until his fingers bleed. But, at the moment, he's merely an alternate in the second string jazz ensemble, not a "core" player. The best he can do is turn the core's pages.

One day bursts in Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in a performance that only be described as un-medicated, making you worry he'll have a stroke on-screen), the leader of the school's award-winning jazz group. He's recruiting new players and puts all prospects through withering, if brief, auditions. When he's through, he dismisses the core player and puts Andrew in the hot seat. Andrew lasts a little longer and is told "Room B16. 6 am. Don't be late."
Of course, he is, arriving an hour late. But no one's there. At 7:59 am, the band starts to crash in, taking their places and quickly prepping. At precisely 8, Fletcher walks in the room, removes his hat and coat and earplugs. Time to begin. The class is sitting at attention, waiting for him to raise his arm and wave a count. He announces the first piece and they begin.
Things don't progress very far. Andrew, turning the core's pages, observes as Fletcher starts the group and cuts it off. "This one really upsets me. We have an out of tune player." He scans the band like an eagle looking for a salmon. He asks for the offending player to confess. Silence. "This is your chance..." then a minute pause.  "...and there it goes." He singles out an overweight trombone player and spits out a series of withering insults until the humiliated student runs out of the room. Fletcher brightens and addresses the class. "For the record, Wentz wasn't out of tune. You were, Erickson. That he didn't know is bad enough."

And that's Fletcher in a playful mood. Over the course of the movie, he will talk up, talk down, harangue, berate, persecute, scream, threaten and play his jazz band like they were his own personal slaves. They're buck privates and he's the sadistic DI. As a conductor, he doesn't conduct himself very well. Chairs will be thrown as well as tantrums, and drummer Andrew Nieman is the one he attacks in triple time.
Nieman is fair game. He's already a perfectionist, arrogant enough to expect the best of himself, unsure enough to keep raising his own personal bar that he might never achieve. The duet the two play is a discordant battle of wills that's mutually destructive. At some point, the music gets lost in the scuffle...
But one is always drawn in by the work of music supervisor Andy Ross (the intricate score is by Justin Hurwitz and it's a subtle stunner) and writer-director Damien Chazelle who constructs the musical sequences out of bits and pieces of intricate camera moves and pointed insert shots. Those sequences are impressive, exciting and prove him to be (at least) an interesting video director, building suspense and paying it off. His script sat on The Black List for a couple years until he was encouraged to make a short (with Simmons as Fletcher) that impressed film festival crowds enough to encourage financing a feature.

Short "presentation" films are well and good, but Whiplash is a sustained effort that so impresses that one suspects that Chazelle could become more than second-string, and step up to be a major player.

No comments:

Post a Comment