Saturday, November 15, 2014

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

Recently I've been seeing films, from this year and other ones, where it's not about simply one thing. And a movie shouldn't be that, it should be about things that can touch us and move us and entertain us in different ways. Whiplash is one of those - possibly the most intense/best film of the year - where it appears to be for a 'niche' audience.

Who rushes out to see movies about jazz drummers? (Well, aside from me with my father, who's been a drummer all his life, but I digress).  Indeed that was the obstacle that faced writer/director Damien Chazzelle when he went ahead to try and make this film (a short was produced first, also featuring J.K. Simmons as the band instructor), and finally when he got his funding together he was clearly ready to go with it - shot in 19 days and executed with an intensity that is reminiscent of Scorsese pictures: fast cutting, intense and dramatic camera movements, and a fiery language and soundtrack.

If you make one J Jonah Jameson joke I will make you eat that fucking cymbal!  (I can't confirm if that's dialog in the movie)

Though this is about people who play music and play jazz, it's about more, much more. It's a protégé/mentor relationship, with a guy who, for most of us, would not want this guy, Fletcher, as an instructor, especially if one is trying to be the very best like the hero, Andrew (Miles Teller). It's a tale of artistic drive and motivation, pushing past the limits of what's expected - think The Red Shoes, or think in sports movie metaphors Rocky (and in ways this is shot and formed like a sports movie, including a finale that is like the "Big Fight" or the "Big Game" or whatever) - and how this can take someone to places that are at best uncomfortable and at worst totally and, by nature logically, self-destructive. And it's a tale of... love, actually (another reviewer pointed this out, but I feel it must be stated again). Love of art, love of life, love to keep going. And the flipside of that: anger, hatred, resentment. This could be a drummer or it could be a friggin' Jedi! And the task-master... well, you seen Full Metal Jacket?

I make all of these comparisons, and they come to mind when such a tremendous work of art is presented before me - I like to try and put it into a greater context, because it is good and strong enough to join those ranks. Chazzelle's film follows Andrew as he joins Fletcher's jazz group at a prestigious music school (no, not like Fame, get that comparison out of here). Fletcher seems like he shouldn't fit into a 21st century educational environment; when he gives later in the film his reasons for doing what he does, it comes down to a railing against what George Carlin called the "P*ssification movement". Why tell someone "Good Job?" That's not enough, certainly at the school this takes place in - or, at least, that's how Fletcher posits his class, and Andrew, who wants to get that good, who has Buddy Rich as his idol, and who may be a nice guy and he wants to have relationships with girls (a she does a nice one who works at a movie theater). 

But to get there... it's rough. It changes you, if you make it your point to go. that. far.  And in this case, the jazz that's played in the film keeps up the tempo that the filmmaker is going for, and it's electrifying, astonishing, and FAST, super fast. Hell, there's a moment involving the speed of playing that could, if, say, marijuana in the 1930's were involved, could be comical. Maybe it is. There are many moments where Simmons, going for it like nobody's business with a character that is so no-BS that you can't take your eyes away, IS funny in a blackly comic way.

Other reference.... Back to School?
Or just by his salty language. Or that it should be absurd. But it's deadly serious - this music, for him, for Andrew, is very serious, could be 'life or death'. It gets to the point where drumming makes the hands bleed. This movie plumbs the depths of "bleeding" for one's art, physically and mentally (usually physically) while creating this absorbing portrait of two men at odds - and yet, in a way, total agreement - with one another.

Whiplash has excellent music, though even for people not usually into jazz; there's almost an element of rock (again, going back to Scorsese and how everything moves to such a rhythm that you're along for the ride), because of the intensity and the pitch. It may be TOO intense. There's certainly a point, let's say right before the third act, it could be incredulous and unrealistic. Chazzelle's reasoning here is to say: who cares? It's a tale of someone reaching for Larger-Than-Life status, so why not go there once or twice.


And the performances are a major asset for the filmmaker, with Teller going further than he's had with The Spectacular Now (the character here is likable, to a point, but his drive turns him into a kind of monster that, in part, just wants to be noticed or stand out in some way), while Simmons gets the role of a lifetime. He's been around and working for so many years, one of those character actors that you can just grin seeing him pop up (or, on Oz, get terrified to see), and here he gets such a meaty character.

It could even be dangerous to play, to go over the top - only Kubrick could usually find the tone for such a performance as with Ermy in the FMJ comparison. But Simmons finds those subtle moments too, where he becomes vulnerable or down to Earth (they're few and far between and, in his character's way, not really part of his make-up).  It may seem reminiscent of other 'Big Bad Instructor' roles, but Simmons finds the grooves and focus to make it his own.  Fletcher is one of the towering, sometimes eerily relatable monsters in modern movies.

And yet there's another level too: the old cliché is "those who can't do teach." The man talks about going beyond greatness - the Charlie Parker anecdote - and yet here is teaching others. The self-hatred is there too, and Simmons taps into that for sure. So that every interaction he has with the people in this band, with Andrew especially, we know where he's coming from and can hate him as the antagonist and driving conflict of the film. And by the end, the question comes: has he met his match?

No confirmation if that's a Blue Velvet ear later on in life...

There's so much to this movie, not to mention the climax which takes two right turns and a left to become one of those masterpiece-climaxes you love seeing in movies, that I hope to return to it for many, many years to come. Chazzelle is now a director to watch, like, for now on.

PS: As for Buddy Rich:

PPS: and the song Whiplash, this is what I thought of first when I heard the title (aside from it being the name of my production company by the way..)

1 comment:

  1. Incredible insight from a reviewer who also pushes himself to be at the pinnacle of his art form, whether in filmmaking, reviewing, teaching, etc. Jack Gattanella never "settles" in any aspect of his life.