Friday, November 14, 2014

Whiplash: A brutal beat

Whiplash (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.14.14

Hard-charging instructors, so the theory goes, have a greater impact on one’s determination to succeed. As this story’s band coach insists, during one of his rare quiet moments, no two words in the English language can do more damage than a polite, “Good job.”

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, right) is gentle with trainee drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) for
about 15 seconds ... after which the young student quickly begins to fear his new
instructor's dismissive gestures and increasingly impatient growl of "Not my tempo!"
Ah, but at what point do aggressive boot camp tactics become damaging emotional abuse? And, given the potential goal, does that distinction even matter?

Such questions are at the heart of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s riveting Whiplash, a fierce contest of wills between a promising drum student and a vicious, perfectionist instructor. Although Chazelle opens the setting up as much as possible, it’s often hard to escape the impression that we’re watching a brutal, two-handed stage play; the acting is that intense.

As the take-no-prisoners Terence Fletcher, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons finally gets a well-deserved starring spotlight: an opportunity he seizes with the ferocity of a shark going in for the kill. Although Fletcher isn’t above physical violence, he’s much more comfortable with mocking psychological warfare, with a shrewd eye for the exploiting a victim’s soft underbelly.

Forever dressed in dark black, Fletcher initially seems a well-meaning if needlessly profane purist ... but Simmons quickly disabuses us of that mistaken impression. The inventive complexity of his profane outbursts might make us chuckle, but it’s nervous laughter at best. It’s all too easy to believe this guy capable of leaping through the screen and ripping our throats out.

Put simply, Fletcher is a bully: a deliberately cruel sociopath who excuses his bestial behavior on the basis of artistic clarity. Simmons is so viciously effective in this role — so memorably nightmarish — that it’s impossible to take our eyes off him. We cringe each time he twists a hand into the clutched fist that signals his musicians to stop, knowing that yet another verbal brow-beating is seconds away.

However impressive the result, from the standpoint of galvanic acting chops, this isn’t a film to be “enjoyed,” in the vicarious sense of the term. This is a nasty, debilitating contest between director and viewer, much like the battle of wills raging between the story’s teacher and pupil.

New York-based, 19-year-old Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), determined to become a world-class jazz drummer, has lived and breathed music his entire life. Production designer Melanie Jones deftly sketches the kid’s immediate environment: the black-and-white posters of jazz greats; the books, CDs and DVDs of historic performances, many of them featuring Buddy Rich; the ubiquitous drum kit crowding out otherwise Spartan furniture.

As a means of furthering this goal, Andrew has enrolled at the Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious, Juilliard-style music school where Fletcher conducts the elite studio jazz band. Admission is strictly by invitation, and he often can be seen roaming the halls, listening at doors, like an impatient lion. He eventually tags Andrew and grants him passage into the fabled rehearsal studio as an unusually young “squeaker”: a deliberately diminutive term for the “alternate” permitted solely to flip pages for the “core” drummer.

Andrew naïvely assumes that he has been given the keys to the kingdom, and has become Fletcher’s newest golden boy. The young student magnifies this error by opening up during a surprisingly mild private chat with his new instructor, little realizing that Fletcher is merely gathering data on the young man’s psychological weak spots.

And, indeed, Andrew is laden with angst. His hard-charging determination to succeed results, at least in part, from the knowledge that his father (Paul Reiser) failed at a writer career and “settled” for becoming a teacher. Father and son have a solid, loving relationship, but that doesn’t include the rest of their extended family. Sunday dinners seem an uncomfortable exercise in one-upsmanship, with Andrew constantly defending his artsy academic career against cousins more profusely lauded for slighter achievements at lesser schools.

But the downside of Andrew’s monomania also surfaces here: a tendency to shun and contemptuously dismiss “ordinary” people, in a manner that disturbs his father, but no doubt would be recognized with glee by Fletcher. When questioned, Andrew cheerfully admits to having no friends. Not good.

He nonetheless works up the courage to invite a movie theater concession clerk on a date. That would be Nicole (Melissa Benoist, immediately recognized as Marley, on TV’s Glee), who accepts with nervous anticipation. She’s a sweet, obviously nice young woman; we can only hope that her finer qualities might offset some of Andrew’s embryonic misanthropy.

But back at Shaffer, Fletcher’s impatience with Andrew’s supposed failings has blossomed into all-out war. Thanks to a stubborn streak just as ingrained as Fletcher’s malice, Andrew isn’t about to give up ... despite enduring abuse long past the point of acceptable behavior on the part of any adult mentor, regardless of circumstance.

We can’t help wondering, as this psychological warfare escalates, why all the other jazz band students sit silently: unwilling or unable to protest, defend one of their own, or walk out in disgust. It seems ludicrous ... and yet media headlines never cease to be filled with stories of institutional fraternity or high school sports hazing behavior that never gets exposed until some poor kid finally dies.

And so we hope that the silence from Andrew’s band mates merely reflects understandable terror, lest Fletcher’s attention turn to them ... and not the resigned, perhaps even smug acceptance of previous victims who, having endured their share of abuse, now feel it appropriate for the new kid to take his lumps.

Relief, therefore, isn’t in the cards ... so where can this possibly end? Who will win, and at what cost?

The punishing, toxic atmosphere aside, Chazelle’s film also is thoroughly drenched with the filmmaker’s obvious love of music, jazz and drumming. He never misses a beat: the frustration, the tempo changes, the broken sticks, the constant rehearsals until the student’s hands literally drip blood on the drum heads. Many of the studio scenes deliver music only in fits and starts, thanks to Fletcher’s constant interruptions; as a result, the exceptions — the extended performances — are deliriously, rapturously triumphant.

The choices are solid, as well; you’ll likely have Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” in your head for days, and the film gets its title from a brutal Hank Levy time signature-mangling piece most famously recorded by Don Ellis.

Although Simmons owns the screen, Teller gives as good as he gets; he’s thoroughly persuasive as this dogged young man, who endures the abuse and pursues the dream long past the point of common sense or self-preservation. Teller’s exhausting, sweat-laden efforts turn horrific: When Andrew plunges his bleeding hands into ice water after a particularly grueling session, it’s easy to believe that Teller actually injured himself. The drum work looks, sounds and feels that real.

As does poor Andrew’s descent into despair and irrational resolve. Chazelle, himself a former young drummer in a conservatory-style high school jazz orchestra, speaks (in his press notes) with obvious chagrin of the moment when his involvement with music turned from joy to outright fear: of missing a note, or losing tempo. His film is the saga of music as blood sport: a studio-bound war where a successful performance grants its players the exhilarating high of the soldiers who survived Omaha Beach.

Teller delivers that elation, that ferocity, that despair. He’s an extremely powerful young actor making good on the promise already shown in Rabbit Hole (his big-screen debut) and last year’s The Spectacular Now.

Reiser steers clear of his customary stand-up tics and conveys a nicely understated glow of parental warmth; Benoist is charming as the cute chick every guy would kill to meet and date. Nate Lang and Austin Stowell stand out as fellow drummers callously used by Fletcher as “cannon fodder” intended to further inspire Andrew.

This isn’t an easy film to watch; it’s as emotionally battering as a well-mounted production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those with delicate sensibilities — or memories of similar abuse at anybody’s hands — are advised to steer clear.

And yet, as the lights finally dim on Chazelle’s music-laden parable, we’re left with another intriguing question: Must we worry about whether true artists are decent human beings, or should we be content solely with their gift?

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