Sur­vival of the fastest

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Whiplash, drama, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3.5 chiles When it comes to a band­leader ver­bally abus­ing his mu­si­cians, Buddy Rich may have set the bar in the 1980s. The leg­endary drum­mer, then in his six­ties, launched a se­ries of tirades be­tween and after his band’s sets, all of which were cap­tured on a hid­den tape recorder. It would be dif­fi­cult to pro­vide even an ex­cised sam­pling of his ver­bal ac­ro­bat­ics here be­cause nearly ev­ery other word is un­print­able.

The di­vide be­tween the calm con­trol and pro­fes­sional de­meanor of a band per­form­ing on­stage and the seething emo­tions that some­times be­lie all the prepa­ra­tion lead­ing up to the mo­ment is a key source of ten­sion in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. The drama stars Miles Teller ( The Spec­tac­u­lar Now, 21 & Over) as as­pir­ing teenage jazz drum­mer An­drew Neiman. Its open­ing black­out sets the per­cus­sive tone, with a long sin­gle-stroke drum­roll crescen­do­ing and ac­cel­er­at­ing in the dark­ness. The lights come up, of­fer­ing the first glimpse of Neiman at his soli­tary prac­tice be­hind the drums. He is in a dim re­hearsal room at the fic­tional Schaf­fer Academy, a New York City con­ser­va­tory pre­sented as the best in the na­tion. At this point, Neiman is both in­no­cent and earnest, ready to be­gin his stud­ies and not know­ing how quickly they will plunge him into a state of se­vere ob­ses­sion — soon, even a car ac­ci­dent won’t keep him from his cov­eted spot on the drum throne for an im­por­tant com­pe­ti­tion, even if that means stum­bling out of the wreck­age and run­ning to the con­cert hall, his suit spat­tered in blood and his left hand hang­ing limply at his side.

The scene is par­tic­u­larly mov­ing be­cause the veil be­tween the months of prepara­tory sacrifice and the brief min­utes of per­for­mance is briefly and painfully lifted. But the phys­i­cal whiplash Teller re­ceives from the ac­ci­dent pales in com­par­i­son with the tongue- lash­ing he and the rest of the band are con­stantly sub­jected to from the school’s top in­struc­tor, Ter­ence Fletcher (played by a riv­et­ing J.K. Sim­mons). Fletcher is not the kind of in­struc­tor who says please when re­quest­ing a drum­roll. The con­trol­ling, foul-mouthed Jekyll-Hyde com­pos­ite fre­quently re­duces his play­ers to tears, em­ploy­ing curses that would make even Buddy Rich blush. Adopt­ing the false role of kind men­tor, Fletcher tells Neiman be­fore his first re­hearsal in the top band, “The key is just to re­lax — have fun.” Shortly after this con­fi­dence booster, he mer­ci­lessly tears Neiman down, first com­par­ing him mock­ingly to Rich (who hap­pens to be Neiman’s hero), then be­lit­tling his par­ents (Neiman’s fa­ther is a failed writer and his mother aban­doned the fam­ily), and fi­nally mov­ing di­rectly into the realms of phys­i­cal abuse.

Fletcher’s teach­ing strat­egy re­lies on pit­ting the play­ers di­rectly against one another, driv­ing the top con­tenders like Neiman into push­ing them­selves to the point of blood­shed. In his quest to in­crease his hand speed, the young drum­mer de­vel­ops seem­ingly never-heal­ing blis­ters that leak dra­matic quan­ti­ties of liq­uid onto his in­stru­ment. Not since Michael Haneke’s 2001 thriller, The Pi­ano Teacher, have blood and mu­sic been so force­fully in­ter­twined.

Whiplash flirts with but ul­ti­mately strays from the stan­dard tra­jec­tory of the ris­ing and bril­liant young mu­si­cian. The film ham­mers home the point that un­end­ing sacrifice is the key to be­com­ing “one of the greats.” Such are the words that Neiman em­ploys when try­ing to ex­plain and de­fend his dreams to his slightly two-di­men­sional love in­ter­est, Ni­cole (Melissa Benoist). But the film also pro­poses — and de­clines an­swer­ing — the follow-up ques­tion: When is the cost of great­ness too high? For Fletcher and Neiman, the an­swer seems to be never, and we are left to de­cide for our­selves whether this is some­thing to ad­mire or de­plore. Less am­bigu­ous, how­ever, and per­haps more in­trigu­ingly ex­plored, is how the power dy­nam­ics of a men­tor­ing re­la­tion­ship can turn a teacher’s ob­ses­sion into a stu­dent’s com­pul­sion.

Vis­ually, the film cap­tures to­day’s New York City with re­al­ism and sub­tle beauty. Both chore­og­ra­phy and edit­ing are highly ef­fec­tive, es­pe­cially in mo­ments of per­for­mance when the per­spec­tive jumps from player to player, or be­tween Neiman and Fletcher, cre­at­ing an in­ti­macy that trans­ports the viewer not just onto the stage, but some­how even into the rol­lick­ing mea­sures of the mu­sic it­self. The mu­sic is like­wise well adapted to the sto­ry­line, fea­tur­ing an orig­i­nal score by Justin Hur­witz, big-band com­po­si­tions by Hur­witz and Tim Si­monec, and a few jazz stan­dards. Th­ese in­clude the Duke Elling­ton clas­sic “Car­a­van” (serv­ing as the rous­ing en­core piece of the film and de­liv­er­ing that craved-for epic drum solo), and the more-ob­scure Hank Levy com­po­si­tion “Whiplash,” a par­tic­u­larly hard com­po­si­tion de­fined by odd time sig­na­tures.

All the el­e­ments co­here in Whiplash, which is per­haps one rea­son why it won both the au­di­ence and grand jury awards at this year’s Sundance Film Fes­ti­val in the U.S. dra­matic com­pe­ti­tion. Ob­vi­ously a la­bor of love for Chazelle, who was him­self a se­ri­ous jazz drum­mer be­fore tran­si­tion­ing his fo­cus in col­lege to film­mak­ing (this is the young film­maker’s sec­ond fea­ture, fol­low­ing his 2009 low-bud­get Guy and Made­line on a Park Bench), the film obliquely hints that the ob­ses­sive drive nec­es­sary for a mu­si­cian to achieve en­dur­ing fame may be just as nec­es­sary for an ac­tor or di­rec­tor.

— Loren Bienvenu

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