Thursday, December 04, 2014
WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
Go on the message board of a struggling sports team, and chances are you’ll find an insistent subset of fans clamoring for the coach to crack the proverbial whip. The belief is that verbal abuse and fear can supply the motivational corrections for lack of success. Yelling and intimidation will provide the catalyst for improvement that supersedes all other obstacles to the objective. Legendary coaches are fondly remembered for how tyrannical they were. Because they win tantrum-throwers and bullies like Bobby Knight are humored and tolerated, at least until they create problems for higher-ups. Even then, they keep their share of admirers because of an unwavering faith that being tough brings the best out of others.
In WHIPLASH 19-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the great drummers. A first year student in fall semester at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Andrew dedicates himself to being the best he can be. Influential and feared teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) notices Andrew and invites him to join the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band. Being in the school’s top jazz orchestra is a major accomplishment, especially considering how young he is, but at the first practice he discovers that Fletcher will use mind games to push him beyond what anyone else might ask of him, assuming he can withstand the pressure.
Bald and clad in black, Fletcher runs the room like a drill sergeant at boot camp. The rehearsals and performances he conducts are no place for those who accept less than perfection. Andrew believes he’s up to the challenge. He practices and plays until his hands develop blisters and bleed, and even then it isn’t enough to get him to stop for long. He preemptively breaks up with a girl he’s seeing because he thinks she will ultimately resent him dedicating every spare moment to drumming. Andrew has a singular goal in mind, and if it requires Fletcher tormenting him, so be it.
Fletcher’s exacting standards are summarized when he tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” If WHIPLASH has enough cultural impact, it’s a line that may be trotted out by those trying to rally their charges to be better while refusing to give an inch to them. Although Simmons is playing the heavy, he’s devilishly appealing as he berates young adults for no good reason other than his misguided sense of how to get them to fulfill their talent. He’s an exacting monster and one whose dark charisma allows him to get away with the kind of behavior that would otherwise be considered impermissible. Simmons adeptly switches between the face he shows the public and colleagues and the one he reserves for those under his stern rule.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps things similar to the sports world by populating the band entirely with male students. The fraternal code means containing what happens within the walls of the rehearsal space rather than risking being perceived as weak. Fletcher flings homophobic, ethnic, and personal insults but notably not racial ones. Like athletes in the locker room, this group of ambitious and skilled musicians normalize outrageous behavior that they disregard as something outsiders wouldn’t understand.
WHIPLASH isn’t a bad teacher movie so much as it’s about the madness in the pursuit for perfection. After all, Fletcher would have less power if Andrew or his fellow players didn’t regard him as an avenue to bigger opportunities or artistic growth. The film’s perspective is attuned to details with a laser focus. From tactile observations of the instruments to every last item in the enclosed environments, even fuzz on the tiled floor, WHIPLASH keeps a vigilant eye that everything is in its place. Beyond the rehearsal space and stage the stakes are not as high as those in them realize, but as Andrew begs to be kept in this cage, it’s as thrilling as if the fate of the world rests upon what transpires there.