Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Whiplash' (2014) directed by Damien Chazelle

There's something extraordinarily satisfying about watching Whiplash. As soon as its over you realise that you've seen the best film about drumming ever. Yep, in the entire 120-odd years of cinema history there's no film about drumming that can even sniff Whiplash's boots (well, maybe The Man with the Golden Arm, but that's really more about the horse). Walking out of this, you know, deep in your bones, that whatever else happens in your life you've got the drumming film genre sorted. 

But the real crunchy, wriggly, deliciously creamy core of Damien Chazelle's film stems from the fact that, while it's very much about jazz drumming, it's just as much a warped satire on sports movies, a homoerotic BDSM duologue and an examination of precisely what you have to sacrifice to achieve perfection.

Set at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, NY (the best music school in the United States) our hero is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19 year old jazz drummer. He's an undoubtedly talented, hard-working musician, light years beyond 99.9% of other musicians. Unfortunately in Shaffer's populated with the rest of the 0.01% and so he's struggling to find his moment to shine. He needs recognition fast as his ambition is to be none other than one of the greatest jazz drummers... of all time!

One day, in the midst of Neiman's practice session the feared and respected leader of Shaffer's studio band, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), stops  in to listen. Fletcher simply radiates terrifying authority; his eyes are laser sights; his veins high voltage power cables; and his mouth a machine-gun dispensing belittling insults. Of all the dominating presences that've strolled across cinema screens in the last year Simmons' Fletcher beats them all into a cocked hat.

This man is a monster, but a monster with a purpose. His philosophy is that true genius is only revealed through hardship; that no all-time great ever got where they were by being told their work as "good enough".  He considers his rage, sadism and intimidation tactics the fire in a kiln, baking his students with blistering heat until they emerge rock-hard, invincible ultramusicians.

The rest of the film chronicles Fletcher's effects on Neiman, taking his initial lump of doughy clay and beating it into something special.  Though there's a couple of other characters in the film (Neiman's father and new girlfriend), they're largely extraneous, functioning as prisms through which we witness the metamorphosis from man to drum machine. The drive for perfection is a messy one, screwing up Neiman's mind, body and soul - the anger and drive that Fletcher pours into his student leaving little room for human weaknesses like emotion and conscience.

So we zero in on the relationship between two people, the masochist and sadist (and thus the double-meaning of the title is revealed). Though Neiman initially whimpers and blubs under Fletcher's barrage of insults, we see him slowly growing to crave them.  It's a similar situation with the pain: practicing so hard his hands become blood-soaked (as does his drum kit).  But as he dunks his bleeding fists into buckets of ice water he gasps in orgasmic bliss.  After all, if it hurts this much it's got to be improving him, right?

and Bottom
Where Whiplash gets interesting is that it refuses to condemn Fletcher's methods. That a film can come out and argue that unvarnished psychological abuse can genuinely work is brave and lightly satirical. In this it shares some DNA with Steven Shainberg's Secretary, taking extreme behaviour that 'normal' people simply can't comprehend and explaining its worth.

Cementing the satire is that we come to realise that practically nobody outside this tiny clique gives a toss about jazz-drumming. Fletcher bemoans the rise of "Starbucks jazz compilations", apparently unaware that this pretty much is jazz nowadays.  It's notable that in the scenes set outside the school nobody cares, understands or pays attention to the music; even in a scene set in a jazz bar the reaction of the patrons is cool indifference.  This rises to a hilarious peak in the concert scenes; the fact that the camera is locked on the two men conceals the fact that these massive venues are almost entirely empty, the herculean efforts of the characters songs greeted by polite, muted applause.  The punchline comes in the climactic scenes when Neiman's father finally sees his son transformed into a monstrous, inhuman drumming machine.  In an ordinary movie this would be where he beams in pride, instead he looks on with horror and confusion.

Sacrificing everything purely to become a master at some obscure art is at the heart of ascetic cinema; from umpteen martial arts movies right through to boxing movies and this film's direct antecedent, Black Swan.  Whiplash presents a way of teaching that's in sharp opposition to the touchy-feely/instant-validation hug-based philosophy that appears so prevalent these days. In scenes where concerned parents, afraid that their little angel is being called names by the nasty music teacher, conspire to him sacked we look down their noses. These morons could never understand perfection.  Nuts to them I say. I'm totally on board with Fletcher's style. 

So go and see Whiplash.  Marvel at the two stunning performances by Teller and Simmons, coo at the ultra-slick pin-point editing, tap your toe at the rat-a-tat pace, chuckle at the outre insults and let your jaw hang low at the stunning/terrifying final drum sequence. Best drum film ever? Certainly. Maybe one of the best music films ever too.


Whiplash is released 16th January 2015

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