Friday, September 19, 2014

Whiplash [film review]

Whiplash, directed and written by Damian Chazelle, began as an 18 minute short film that dazzled at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it scored the financial backing to turn it into a full-length movie. Shot for a little over $3 million in 19 days, the 106 minute feature premiered at Sundance a year later and took home a rare double win for best drama from both the festival jury and audiences. Whiplash's inspiration came from Chazelle's own experiences as a drummer in an ultra-competitive high school jazz band, with the setting now shifted to an elite New York City music college. 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (played by Miles Teller), a highly ambitious drummer with visions of being the next Buddy Rich, lands on the radar of the conservatory's feared jazz band conductor, Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who offers the first-year student a chance to prove himself in his ensemble. Given what may be Miles' best opportunity to catapult himself to the legendary status he covets, much blood (literally) and sweat is in the offing for the youngster.

The film's two leads give exceptional performances, each emanating considerable intensity, but in different ways. Simmons played one seriously intimidating dude in Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood on HBO's prison drama Oz. Vern, however, seems positively demure compared to Terence, whose teaching methods are akin to those of a sadistic drill sergeant. Terence isn't above hurling emasculating, homophobic, and racist inventive at students not performing up to his almost impossibly high standards, as Andrew quickly finds out. That only pushes Andrew harder and it's thoroughly fascinating being submerged into the world of someone so driven by a dream that they'll endure such hell and have their life absolutely consumed with their passion. An effective minor romantic subplot with a nice performance by Melissa Benoist only reinforces that latter point. Teller's percussive skills merit mention, considering he played all the drum parts in the film (much of it very technically demanding, which I can attest to as an amateur drummer myself). A rock drummer who had played in several non-serious bands over the years, Teller had a mere three weeks to learn a completely new jazz playing style and the film's music, which is ridiculously impressive. 

My only reservation (and it was fairly minor) prior to watching Whiplash was whether or not my lack of interest in jazz would be an obstacle to enjoying the film and it most certainly was not. I surprisingly enjoyed much of the music, particularly the composition by Hank Levy that gives the movie its name. I do wish Chazelle had taken a different approach than the one he conceived for the movie's dramatic crescendo, but that's about the only negative thing I can write about the outstanding Whiplash, which features possibly the best performances by a pair of leads in a film that you'll see this year.

Rating: A