Director: Damien Chazelle
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references
As the live jazz continued in the background, the dim lights of the jazz club twinkled on. The slim number of casual patrons created a low buzz in the background. With two glasses standing between him and Andrew Neiman, Terence Fletcher, Andrew’s band leader, leaned in closer to his former pupil. His frown developing with terrifying intensity, Fletcher lowered his voice and continued—his voice was as sharp as knives. “Now imagine if Jones had just patted young Charlie on the head and said ‘Good job.’ Charlie would’ve said to himself, ‘Well…I did do a good job,’ and that’d be that. No Bird. Tragedy, right? Except that’s just what people today want.” Fletcher paused before driving his final sentence in with menacing emphasis. “There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job.’”
If you have played a team sport or picked up an instrument, you have most probably experienced a “Terence Fletcher” moment at least once. “Faster! Faster!” and “Not my tempo!” your instructor shouted at you. He said you weren’t playing it right, or you were a hair too slow, but nothing seemed to satisfy him. Never before had you felt this close to giving up the sport or instrument. But a few hours or days after your nightmare with your teacher, it didn’t seem that bad after all. However, what if there was a teacher who was very much like this and was a bit realer than a nightmare?
Before his 2016 musical, La La Land, Damien Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer named Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) who, after practicing till blood trickled down from his hand, is admitted to the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band, the top jazz orchestra in the world, but the conductor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is no less than a human incarnation of the devil. He tortures his students, pushing them closer and closer to the edge of breaking—and some do break. He hurls chairs at his band members, physically attacks them, and insults them to nothingness, just to name a few. Why does he do this? Throughout the film, Fletcher often repeats a story of how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker: Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.
Fletcher wants to train the next Charlie Parker; the next Louis Armstrong; the next Jazz great. In a pivotal scene near the end of the film, Fletcher tells Andrew, “Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is a necessity.” More or less, Fletcher is the jazz equivalent of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s renowned war film, Full Metal Jacket. Whiplash is very much like a war movie, and in fact, it probably is more intense and gritty than most war films.
I don’t think it would come much as a surprise that writer and director Damien Chazelle procured this story from personal experiences. A jazz drummer himself, Chazelle relates the story behind his film in NPR’s January 7, 2017 “Fresh Air” interview: “It had a lot to do with a very intensive jazz program at my high school that I was a part of, and a very demanding teacher, and certain emotions I felt as a young player where the kind of enjoyment and appreciation of the art of music was inextricably wrapped up in fear and dread and anxiety about getting something wrong.” So, really, he molded this film after his own nightmares. In fact, the Academy Awards nominated its screenplay under the Adapted Screenplay category instead of the Original Screenplay category because it was quite autobiographical. What makes this film so gripping is the amount of relatability that everyone faces sometime down along the road with teachers, coaches, bosses and maybe parents—some to a high degree, some less. Plus, the fact that it was based off his real-life experiences drives this film forward with a gut punch.
The camerawork in this film is a language of its own. It alone tells a story, and the editing that complements it is simply genius. Isolated, the cinematography itself is half the work; it’s merciless, never pulling any punches. And that is even without mentioning J. K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher. This film is not for the faint of heart. Simmons embodies the monster of Fletcher so well that it seems like they are the same person—outside of the movie too. He’s always on the verge of snapping. One moment he’s giving a high-five to a little girl; the next moment he insults your mother as if she had offended him greatly. After you watch this film, you will never see Simmons in his other films in any other way anymore. Even if he plays a protagonist in that film, he’ll still look to you like a ticking time bomb. Frankly, that’s just how terrific J. K. Simmons is in Whiplash.
Unsurprisingly, there is quite a steady stream of uncompromising foul language here, mainly Fletcher. And the acts of violence—though, compared to other war films, they are sparse—are fueled with meaning. When it comes from Fletcher, we feel nothing but shock and anger against him. But when it comes from Andrew, it’s both satisfying and sickening to watch. I have to admit that though Miles Teller is one of my least favorite actors in the industry, he does do a decent job as Andrew Nieman—probably his best performance ever. It’s still far from a good performance, but it doesn’t take much away from the impact of the movie.
With the addition of Fletcher’s swearing that spices up the personality of the driven band leader, Simmons’s portrayal of the violent perfectionist is captivating and real. He commands Fletcher’s role so well that we can’t look away for a single beat. His fuse is always about to blow, and we can’t help but give in to our curiosity, wondering what’s going to rain down on his students when he does. This film is a bumpy and unpredictable ride. The way it ends, too, is explosively triumphant and absolutely riveting as all the pieces of the film come together in viciously directed fireworks—easily one of the best endings in film ever. Whiplash is mesmerizing. It’s intense. It’s brutal. But before the final beat drops, you’ll be caught knee-deep in its vivid storytelling.
http://www.npr.org/2017/01/07/508375081/fresh-air- weekend-lin- manuel-miranda- la-la- land-director-
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