Saturday, March 7, 2015

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'

Whiplash is a film that seizes you from its opening notes and does not let go until the end. Like Birdman, it was nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, involves a lot of drumming and is about a journey to become great - in this case, "one of The Greats."

A sense of growing intensity is established right at the beginning by the crescendoing sound of drums in the dark, followed by stellar dialogue between the film's two protagonists: Andrew Neiman (played by a focused, convincing Miles Teller) and Terence Fletcher (an astounding J.K. Simmons), whose enigmatic entrance from the shadows befits his near-Satanic personality. Of course, there are moments in the film when we see the tender side of him - when he high-fives a little girl and when he tears up at the thought of one of his old students. Yet as Damien Chazelle himself said to Simmons, "I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal." This is what Simmons brings to the big screen.

Neiman is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory, where he is initially an unconfident alternate for the core drummer of a practice band. However, his dreams are big and music is everywhere. The jazz score in the opening scenes brings the promise of possibility, despite the eerie green lighting and a road sign that appears for a brief second, bearing the following warning: "watch your step on the road ahead."

As Fletcher tells Neiman amiably before he plays for the first time, Charlie Parker only became 'Bird' because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. We are meant to bear this analogy in mind throughout the film as Fletcher hurls a chair at Neiman, screams profanity-laced insults at him and even slaps him to make a point about tempo (the famous rushing/dragging scene). Finally, traumatized and driven in a demoniac way, Neiman becomes so drawn into drumming that nothing - not even near, literal "whiplash" from a car accident - can diminish his desire to play his part and impress. Indeed, the myriad close-up shots of sweat, ears and eyes in the film only further reinforce the intense, intimate and sensual nature of drumming. It is electric and all-consuming.

Thus, the philosophy of Whiplash is one that has, no doubt, raised eyebrows. It defines the price of success as sacrifice, maddening commitment and sweat and blood (literally) to an inhumane extent. Those who can reach that peak are immune from humiliation or discouragement. In the film, Neiman approaches such a dimension by wrapping bandaid after bandaid on his bleeding hand, drumming at breakneck speed for five hours straight to "earn" a part, and by finally going back on stage to challenge his conductor in an exhilarating finale that leaves your ears ringing. The fearful face of Neiman's father through the door crack is striking as he watches his son play - it is as if he knows his son is transcending the mortal, going beyond "what's expected" and approaching a terrifying territory of greatness that he cannot touch.

So, watch Whiplash - be it for its message, Fletcher's astonishing insults, or ~108 minutes worth of great jazz and drumming!