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NYFF: Whiplash: The Passion of the Drummer

The NYFF coverage continues. Here's Michael on Oscar buzzing Whiplash...

Terence Fletcher is a notoriously demanding music teacher whose go-to story is about how Charlie Parker got a cymbal thrown at him by drumming great Jo Jones when Parker choked onstage at a jazz club as a teenager. To hear Fletcher tell it, that public humiliation was the impetus for Parker to dedicate himself to his craft and become the jazz legend known forever as Bird. Knowing this about Fletcher, it’s little surprise that freshman Andrew Neyman gets a metal chair thrown at his head for the crime of being off tempo on his first day on drums as a member of Fletcher’s elite studio band. 

To be clear, that’s thrown at his head, not near his head. Damien Chazelle’s blistering Sundance smash Whiplash makes it clear that this is not the story of a hard-assed but wise teacher who applies tough love to coax the best out of his students. Fletcher’s behavior crosses the line quickly and often. His “lessons” are often little more than playing interrupted by slurs, slaps, and cruel mind games. It’s as if he learned how to teach by watching Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry monologue on a loop. 

To Fletcher, there is no such thing as too far, because any student capable of greatness needs someone like him to test his or her mettle against. [more...]

To do less would be a dereliction of duty, depriving the world of a great artist. If anyone crumbles under his torment that only proves they never had what it takes in the first place. Andrew Neyman sees this gauntlet for what it is and determines to emerge in tact on the other side, thus setting in motion a toxic battle of wills between the two men. 

J.K. Simmons delivers a towering, career defining performance as Fletcher. Far from a one-note ogre, he is a figure that we, like Andrew, can never fully get a read on. We sense that his classroom behavior is itself a performance, but where that performance begins and ends is impossible to say. Fletcher’s love of music is certainly sincere, although that may have curdled into a mania for perfection this is not obtainable. Chazelle and Simmons don’t shy away from showing the appeal of such an uncompromising (and undeniably brilliant) authority figure, and Whiplash slyly toys with our desire to find out that Fletcher really is a good guy under the appalling surface.

Teller gives as good as he gets as Andrew, delivering another impressive performance following his terrific work in last year’s The Spectacular Now. Whiplash requires Teller to go to some intense places, and he does so without ever lapsing into awards bait hamminess. The same could be said of the film’s style, which is flashy without being gratuitous. Even when the sweat and blood droplets are bouncing off the symbols in extreme slo-mo it doesn’t feel excessive because the style is so tuned in to Andrew’s frame of mind. It helps that both Chazelle and Teller are experienced drummers so the film is never less than convincing in the performance scenes.

Fletcher loves the story about Charlie Parker and the cymbal but leaves out the part where Parker dies a mentally broken addict at age 34. Whiplash’s asks whether that is a fair price to pay to be immortalized as one of the greats. The eagerness with which Andrew burns up pieces of his humanity in order to stoke the fires of his talent suggests he has reached a troubling answer. More troubling still, the levitational thrill of watching his talent reach its full expression makes it more difficult to disagree than we might be comfortable with. Whiplash fearlessly tackles these complex issues while delivering electric performances and some knockout scenes of drumming. It’s powerhouse filmmaking and it announces the arrival of a major talent in Chazelle.  A-

Whiplash plays tonight at 9 PM and Monday Sept 29th at 6 PM. It opens in limited release on Friday, October 10th

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Reader Comments (3)

Great review.

September 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Just saw Whiplash tonight and I am mesmerized by it.
Amazing film with so much energy and ideas and two great performances on top of it all.
Nice review!

September 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterremy

LOVE WHIPLASH! Really hoping it lands a Best Picture nod. Teller deserves to be in the top 5 too but such a stacked category.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

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