Unless confronted with the schlock horror of indescribable violence it isn’t often a film pushes you back into your comfy cinema chair.
Whiplash (2014) did.
For what did not seem like a long screening time, Whiplash loaded up with full-on, tense scenes of teaching to gain perfection – despite the cost.
One man’s quest to make his music teaching career relevant by discovering at least one “Charlie Parker” who he can guide to greatness comes head-to-head with one student’s desire to be that person but not at the cost of losing his mind.
The featured student, Andrew (Miles Teller), goes close. Perhaps he even strays into that mentally-ill orbit that real greatness often has to share; perhaps his devil-may-care solo at the film’s end sends him into either one of these spheres? Again, perhaps both?
Andrew gets singled out to be alternate drummer in a fictional New York school’s main band, led by teacher-conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
Fletcher’s teaching methods are even too old to be termed Old School but they are effective. His students are terrified of him and channel this fear into performing at very high levels. Fletcher, we are led to believe, has the infinite skill to hear a bum note while not even paying attention. Consequently, his students don’t hit many of these.
The title Whiplash comes from a difficult piece of music Andrew memorises. His musical retention helps move him from alternate to main-chair drummer and his career seems assured. This gives him the confidence to ask a girl out for pizza and to insult his cousins (or family friends) whose exploits as jocks he has apparently had to hear for years. While these boys’ father laud their efforts over dinner, Andrew’s wannabe writer, schoolteacher Dad, Jim (Paul Reiser), seems not to understand his son’s achievements enough to warrant his own bragging.
Determination to achieve his goal to be a great drummer sees Andrew icily drop his girl friend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist) but the teacher has other ideas, cruelly putting things in the boy’s way to try to make him even better.
Their confrontation leads to a break up, hastened by a traffic accident, and an unusual reconciliation after Andrew gives evidence in a class action against Fletcher’s teaching methods that leads to both men moving on to less-wanted roles.
Teller is marvellous as Andrew, mere flicks of the eye or turned-down face enough to express deeply-withheld emotions about the injustices visited on him. Some of these though are well deserved and our sympathy is not with him a lot.
Fletcher we are meant to loathe. Simmons gives a career-best performance as this maniacal Music Man who really knows his stuff.
He has a face you’ve seen before but none of us know where. He’s always the character of the chief detective or grouchy newspaper editor, which indeed he was in Spider-Man (2002), constantly shouting at Tobey Macguire’s Peter Parker. Simmons was also the father of Juno in the 2007 film of that name, coming to terms with the unwanted pregnancy of his unusual daughter.
He is used to playing outwardly angry but generally benign men. Terence Fletcher gives him a chance to spread his wings further – and he flew.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle is less than 30 years-old by my maths and his ability to draw such magnetic performances from two very different actors from two very different generations is a revelation.