Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash”

whiplash-miles-tellerThe two worst words in the English language: ‘Good job.’

Such is the wisdom of Terence Fletcher, the grizzled jazz composer and teacher at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. He is a virtual love child of Tony Robbins and Morton Downey, Jr., and bitterly grumbles about the slow demise of old-school jazz. Andrew Neiman is a babyfaced nineteen-year-old freshman who has played the skins since childhood and loftily aspires to ascend to the pantheon of all-time jazz-drumming greats, alongside the likes of Buddy Rich. No small feat.

Fletcher is determined to motivate his students and nurture their untapped potential by any means necessary, even if it means resorting to psychological warfare and unabashed drill-sergeant humiliation as if he’s training a group of musically-inclined SEALs. In the name of winning the core-drummer position in Shaffer’s studio band, Andrew and his peers are rotated nonstop until one of them can simply maintain the proper tempo of the 1973 Hank Levy piece “Whiplash,” while all the other instrumentalists can literally do nothing but wait outside. Three hours later, class resumes as normal without skipping a beat…at two in the morning.

Fletcher justifies his actions merely with the story of drummer Jo Jones once hurling a cymbal at the head of none other than Charlie Parker for his inability to keep a beat (which in turn supposedly inspired Bird to begin taking his craft far more seriously). Andrew staunchly endures this sadism in his hellbent commitment in gaining the round-seated throne and earning Fletcher’s respect literally through blood, sweat and tears.

There’s no avoiding it: Whiplash simply would not exist without J.K. Simmons, who is of such an indelible and intimidating presence that it’s a wonder he doesn’t burn holes into the celluloid. His cutting barbs fly in that frenetic J. Jonah Jameson pace with sickening relish, just daring the audience to let loose a smile or snicker from the safety of the theater seats. With his bald head, wizened face and tall, black-garbed frame, Fletcher is almost the Voldemort to Andrew’s Harry Potter, should we invoke the exact same initials of that other conjurer of magic.

Whenever Andrew isn’t frenetically playing his heart out and sweating his body weight in the process, the script (penned by director Damien Chazelle) does him little favors, including saddling him in an unnecessary romantic subplot with a movie-theater concessions clerk (Melissa Benoist, with nothing to do) that yields predictable consequences. To Chazelle’s credit, he otherwise just goes balls-out and doesn’t sugarcoat a damn thing, otherwise his movie becomes The Blind Side with a horn section. He lets the blood flow from Andrew’s drumstick-ravaged hands with as much intensity as the insults from Fletcher’s mouth, all bolstered by Tom Cross’ phenomenal, breakneck editing. Miles Teller, with a cherubic face and mop of black hair not unlike that of a young Elvis, was surely aware he had no chance in matching Simmons neither in onscreen authority nor the teacher-versus-student war of words. The payoff is well worth it, however, when it comes time for Andrew to slay his own Voldemort.

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