Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: "Whiplash" is the Most Lovingly Authentic Movie About Drummers and Obsession

Left to right: Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
It's hard to believe, but there aren't a lot of great movies about drummers. Yes, there are enjoyable movies about bands, but very few focus around the percussive force that often serves as the backbone of their sound. With director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, things become abundantly clear why this is the case. Drumming is a hard task that involves keeping tempo and maybe even bleeding on the kit. Nonetheless, it is in striving for greatness that the film truly proves itself and with an amazing third act drum solo manages to become a quintessential film about the plights of greatness and while it may be isolating, is also kind of endearing.

The film's most indicative element is its mirrored beginning and end. Opening on Andrew (Miles Teller) playing alone in a room, the camera looms in closer only to reveal that it has been shown from Fletcher's (J.K. Simmons) perspective. Fletcher is a tough as nails orchestra leader who starts off unimpressed by Andrew's playing, which the audience may actually find to be quite adequate. It is in the final drum solo of the film in which this shocking introduction gets it catharsis not with words, but with nods and hand gestures. Andrew has become a great drummer, but at a dedicated price. Depending on your involvement with music and playing instruments, the results will either be horrific or inspiring. To me, they are the latter.

The real magic of the film is that Fletcher isn't just a blowhard. Yes, he forces his drummers to play for hours on end until they match the tempo he wants. He curses out his students like R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket. This is all forgivable when his motives become clear. Yes, he doesn't actually have the most demanding role compared to Andrew, but with his unnerving calmness, he captures something more disappointing. The feeling of failure and defeat. To let his words bother you is to experience your dreams crumble. The way that he deciphers each instrument with obsession is a brilliant ode to how dedicate he is to music. With his mighty hand controlling the stop and go, he is a master of the film and definitely earns Simmons one of his best performances.

The other excellent aspect of the film is how the camera shoots the performances. While it isn't specifically based around drumming, it does feature some of the more enjoyable camera angles. It isn't afraid to show close-ups of horns or loiter in mid-performance conversations. There's a tensity that rises with each scene and captures the flaws and magic of live performance. The editing alone in the final 15 minutes of the film is some of the best of 2014 and leaves audiences almost too invested in a drum solo. The music has replaced communication, which creates the ultimate bond between student and teacher. All of the shouting and hurled chairs suddenly seem worth it. 

The downside is that Andrew has become too obsessed and has pretty much isolated everyone he loves. He is a musician now and has no time for people's nonsense. Following The Spectacular Now, Teller continues to prove himself as a reliably cocky and charismatic actor who even manages to hold his own against the looming force of torment that is Simmons. With the two storms continually colliding, the film is a ball of energy unlike any other. It may seem like a battling of egos, but it is really the most honest depiction of what makes an artist great. Sadly, you can rarely be great and a nice person. One has to be sacrificed.

Overall, Whiplash is a film that thrusts itself into the audience's face and never lets go. With some of the year's finest editing, it manages to be one of the most wholly satisfying films about music and one of the few that explores it with honesty. Yes, it may seem intense and Simmons may never seem redeemable to quitters, but it is a film about passion and striving for something greater. By the end, it leaves the viewer asking if the excessive practice was worth the amazing drum solo that ends the film. Was it worth it to impress the angry teacher? It is a film about never giving up on your dreams. Who far you go with them is up to you.

The simple truth is that I wasn't expecting the film to be this great. After hearing the buzz about it, I assumed that it was going to be above average with a good Simmons performance. The results were more intense and, as a musician myself, speaks to something deeper. The obsession to be the best is clearly there and having that voice guide you to go faster is one that may intimidate, but makes you a better person. I come away almost admiring Simmons more than fearing him for wanting something greater out of his musicians. True, I wouldn't last in his presence, but he is definitely dedicated.

For starters, I find the soundtrack to have used percussion a lot more effectively than Antonio Sanchez in Birdman. It could just be that it was more of a traditionalist way, but it actually feels like there's a melody and a basis for the music. Both films use drumming to express the protagonist's inner turmoil, but I feel like Whiplash does it better. Also, I cannot attest to if Teller actually did the drumming (as convincing as it was), but I feel like watching him sweat and bleed definitely makes him more noteworthy as an Oscar nominee than he is being given credit for. If Michael Keaton was physical, then Teller was doing back flips around him.

The easy lock is Simmons, who manages to be the looming drive for the film. He may not always have the most demanding part, but he does manage to make you care for the actions and it results in one of the most authentic looks at a music teacher out there. He really is the R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket when you think about it. By the end when he is asked to do nothing but nod, there is a certain beauty to his part that takes quite a bit of skills as an actor. I still need to do research, but I feel like he is definitely a lock for Best Supporting Actor.

I don't talk about it much, but I would really like it if the film got a Best Editing nomination. Rarely in 2014 has a film felt as essential with its editing as the last 15 minutes of this film. They keep the tension rising and each cut feels integral in creating a more visceral picture. I would be annoyed if Birdman received one over Whiplash, as it wasn't nearly as useful and is actually antithetical to the one take charm of the film. Still, I come away hoping that this film does well at the Oscars. Simmons already has the Golden Globe nomination. Time to see if he can get to the Oscars.

Will Whiplash show up at all at the Oscars? Is Miles Tellers ever going to win an Oscar? What other films feature great editing?

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