Thursday, January 29, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

What price greatness?
I do love screener season. It gives me a chance to watch some great films - ones I would never go to see in the theatre. I save my theatre going for those really huge Hollywood blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy. Home is the perfect setting for such an intimate film like Whiplash.

J.K. Simmons will win the Academy Award as much for this performance as for a whole collection of great performances by perhaps the greatest character actor working today. From the moment he showed up on screen he was electric. There is something about playing an asshole that brings out the best in Simmons. Only HIS brand of assholes makes this story pay off in the way that it does. He is scary and unrelenting is his search for perfection.

A freshman drummer at a fictitious but prestigious school of music, Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman listens to Buddy Rich records to cop his riffs, while sharing drumming duties with a much less accomplished guy in the school’s number two band.

One day, the devil walks in and asks Andrew to play. Of course, it’s not really — or even metaphorically — the devil; instead, it’s music instructor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons (best known for the HBO series Oz and for his long-running stint as the Farmers Insurance pitchman). Fletcher just happens to look a lot like the devil, especially all dressed in black and starkly lit as he continuously is in a film that looks as good as it sounds (cinematography by Sharone Meir; music by Justin Hurwitz). He taps Andrew to be the “alternate” in the school’s premier band, which in fact just means acting as a page turner for that band’s core player.

Then one day Andrew is asked to “take the chair,” as they say. All hell breaks loose, thus concluding our devil metaphor.

I heard Simmons on Howard Stern the other morning and learned that his father was a concert conductor and that Simmons has a lot of musical education and ability. Watching him the role of a teacher seems so real because it's coming from an honest place. Simmons could have been the guy he's playing in real life if he hadn't decided to become an actor. There is not a single false note in his performance.

I am also a huge fan of these student/teacher movies but this one is unlike anything 'feel good' you would hope to find. This is not Stand and Deliver. Watching Simmons bully his students was not always the easiest experience but that is why I love movies like this. His shit is fearless! If you thought he was scary in OZ then you haven't seen anything yet. I never know if he is playing or if he is a true psychopath and that is what makes his performance so riveting. I respect his passion if not the way that he pursues it.

One thing I learned from this movie is that music school is serious business and not for the faint hearted when you get to THAT level of proficiency, regardless of the instrument. Do you get better without someone to push you past your limits, even if that 'pushing' borders on abuse? Is that only way to be a success?

I thought a lot about my teaching time and my philosophy. I would never yell at a kid because then I give away my power. In fact, the quieter I got, the more the kids worried. The louder I was the happier I was with how things were going in the class.

How does a teacher choose which student to mentor and which one to just let slip by. Who needs the help the most? Is it so easy to separate the ones who have promise from the ones who don't? And then where does ego get involved? Who is the one being 'fixed' here? Student or teacher?

Milles Teller plays down his character in a performance that SCREAMS anger but from the most silent inner places. All his expression comes from the drum sticks he wields. All his blood, swear and tears are put into his art. It's another hypnotic performance. I watched and didn't believe half of what I was seeing in terms of musicianship.

Our new Supergirl, Melissa Benoist, plays Nicole, the girl our drummer meets at the movie theatre. She is adorable and thoughtful and takes the edge off whenever she is on screen. A minor but essential role.

I loved this movie. It has an energy that grabbed me and would not let go. I was mesmerized the whole time. This is the kind of movie you tell your friends to see. It's not always fun but stick it out to the end and you will be enormously rewarded.



Debra She Who Seeks said...

Yes, "Whiplash" is definitely on my "to see" list. Glad to hear you think it is worthy.

Mike said...

Ive heard a lot of good things about this movie. Ill have to keep an eye out for it to rent

DrGoat said...

This is a good one. I'll watch any movie about drummers. Wish there was a movie about Buddy Rich, one of my favorites. Was a drummer in a 'garage bans' back in the 60s-70s myself. We did Yardbirds, Steppenwolf, Buffalo Springfield songs. Ancient history.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Now that is a picture I would love to see and a cassette demo tape I would love to hear. You played the classics and lived the dream. That is cool to know.

DrGoat said...

Seems like a long ago. Might as well have been in a galaxy far away too, the way things turned out in the US.