Sunday, November 2, 2014


 5 / 5 

Whiplash is the first genuinely great movie of 2014, a film that presents a story so familiar it's almost trite and fills it not simply with new life but with resonance, intensity and ferociousness.

The story: A young, ambitious music student with enormous talent is trained by a bitter, caustic teacher, who makes the student the focus of his pent-up frustrations and hostilities.

Accustomed as we are to the happy colors of a movie like Pitch Perfect or a TV series like Glee, the idea of a movie set against the backdrop of high-pressure music competitions seems hackneyed.  We've seen all this before: The student will practice, practice, practice and never quite get it right until the teacher pushes harder than ever and the student's brilliance shines through in the climactic performance. Yawn.

I'm not going to kid you, most of that happens in Whiplash, but writer-director Damien Chazelle and especially the two main performers, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, turn it into something completely new and utterly disarming.

Whiplash is about jazz musicians, and I know as much about jazz music as I do about Antarctica, which is basically that it exists.  I couldn't tell you the first thing (despite eight years of piano lessons) about the mechanics of music, especially drumming.  I may be the most rhythm-challenged person in Los Angeles.

But Whiplash gave me a thrill.  It refuses to play dumb; I knew no more about jazz coming out of it than I did going in.  But that's not what Whiplash is about, even though its filmmakers seem to know the setting intimately.

Whiplash instead focuses its passions on exploring the intersection between talent and perseverance, saving what's really on its mind until late in the story, when Terence Fletcher, the gnashing, lashing bully of a music teacher played by Simmons reveals what sound like his motives: Truly great people aren't created that way -- it takes someone who recognizes their greatness and will push them, exhaust them, challenge them to be better than anyone else.

Simmons plays the role with such intimidating perfection that he makes complete sense -- he makes indefensible behavior seem not simply defensible but requisite.

Watching him, listening and judging his explanation with a knowing smirk is Andrew Neyman (Teller), the student who has been the object of his obsessive wrath, and whose career ambitions can be made or shattered by a simple word.

Neyman doesn't want to be a drummer, he wants to be "one of the greats."  He is as single-minded in his determination as Fletcher, and with these two actors the relationship never feels contrived -- it is urgent and necessary; in each other, they have found the person who gives them purpose.

At home, Neyman has a father (Paul Reiser) who's as kind-hearted and nurturing as anyone could ever want a father to be.  That's the last thing Neyman wants.  At school, he's found a girl who's as sweet on him as he could ever wish.  He doesn't want sweet. Neyman wants to be pushed, and he's found someone happy to do the pushing.  When Fletcher takes things too far, Neyman dares him to go further.

Neither actor shies away from the challenge -- both are staggeringly good, and to call Simmons "better" than Teller is at once impossible and unnecessary; if Simmons garners the lion's share of the praise, it's only because Teller is fearless.  Chazelle, meanwhile, offers up a storyline that's as simultaneously loose and tight as a piece of jazz, combining it with the tools of cinema to create as closer to a masterwork as we might be likely to see this year.

Like the music at its core, it feels spontaneous but its construction is sublime and its execution is close to flawless.  There aren't many movies that can't be missed. Whiplash is one of them.

Viewed Nov. 1, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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