Film review: WHIPLASH, from Built For Speed

Landing somewhere between Fame, Black Swan and Full Metal Jacket, Whiplash is a gut-wrenching music drama, which, while flawed, is still one of the year’s most riveting films. In its best moments this is a searing examination of bullying, the forces that compel people toward objectionable even maniacal behaviour, the obsessive pursuit of success and the limits of emotional endurance. Who would have thought that the world of a jazz conservatory could produce such incendiary cinema?

Miles Teller plays the naive ambitious but socially awkward 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neiman who desperately wants the adulation afforded his musical heroes like Buddy Rich. A student of the prestigious Schaffer music school he, like the other students wants a place in the competition band run by the legendary and fearsome Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When Fletcher summons Andrew to his practice room, it seems Andrew’s talent and dedication have been recognised and he is about to enjoy a major step forward in his career.  The experience turns into a nightmare, though, as Fletcher proves to be a ferociously abusive and bigoted monster who mercilessly torments and insults his charges, particularly Andrew. Although Andrew does everything humanly possible to earn Fletcher’s approval, the evil jazz maestro is never satisfied and delights in pushing Andrew to the point where his hands bleed and his mind almost snaps.

Testament to J.K. Simmons’ sensational performance is how much we hate Fletcher.  Reasonable human beings in the audience will pray for someone to beat the snot out of him.  Abhorrent one minute but suspiciously charming the next, Simmons takes his character of bullying bastard Fletcher to the edge without ever spilling over into cartoon villain.  Like any bully, Fletcher tries to justify his abusive behaviour and here he repeatedly trots out a story about a jazz drummer throwing a symbol at Charlie Parker’s head which allegedly inspired Parker to practice like crazy and become the greatest jazz musician of all time.  Never mind Parker’s innate ability, work ethic or love of music.  As Andrews Dad (an underused Paul Reiser) also points out, Charlie Parker died a depressed heroin addict at 34, a fact that has disturbing resonances in this film.

Miles Teller, evoking the smart precocious conflicted rebels John Cusack played so well in decades past, is terrific as an innocent guy driven almost to the point of madness by a mocking and duplicitous psychopath.  He isn’t just an innocent goofball, though, as he displays a few objectionable characteristics himself particular as Fletcher’s influence begins to take hold on him. Teller apparently had some drumming experience prior to this film so he looks authentic.  As well as his fine work the film features some scintillating playing from the featured jazz ensemble.

Although Whiplash is like no other film this year it does recall a few films from the past.  Its characters and dramatic arc are reminiscent of the 1963 drama Parish in which a young Troy Donahue is subjected to horrendous psychological bullying from evil tobacco boss Karl Malden. There’s also a touch of the Social Network in some of the acerbic exchanges and in the film’s dark atmospheric look.

While performances and direction are impeccable, Whiplash has script problems and contains some irritatingly implausible and inconsistent scenes.  For example, it seems highly unlikely that a person like Fletcher who hits his students and uses homophobic slurs would still be employed after one day in class.  Also, Fletcher should have been in prison or at least disgraced in the music community for one incident but he still seems to be warmly accepted.  There’s also a highly unbelievable rapprochement between Andrew and Fletcher at one point in the film which sees Fletcher engage in some very uncharacteristic self-sabotaging behaviour.  Admittedly, this film is interested in the extremes of emotion and the destructive power of artistic obsession so a little poetic licence is acceptable but even taking that into account, the logical inconsistencies in this film are very hard to overlook.

While the inconsistencies and script flaws diminish this film, Whiplash is still a thrilling drama that has rightfully generated feverish Oscar buzz for its two leads.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Damien Chazelle.

Release date: 22nd Oct 2014

Running time:  106 mins. 

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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