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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whiplash

Along with the Grand Budapest Hotel, this was my personal favourite of this year's very solid Oscar lineup. I'm still kind of astounded by this fact.


Whiplash is, in no uncertain terms, a brilliant piece of work. It is also, however, a seriously odd duck. It's a music film with a nasty heart; a tense, edge of your seat thriller where most of the action happens behind a drumset and, most unbelievably, an emotionally riveting and thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling that is lacking in anything even remotely resembling a single likeable lead character. It's also a film that approaches music not as art but as a grueling, almost martial sport; as something that isn't a mode of expression but as something that's all about mathematical precision and superhuman technical abilities. Most audaciously, it presents a nine-minute long jazz-drum solo as the height of dramatic tension.

It's a film of contradictions, paradoxes even, that refuses to adhere to formula, to bow to expectations or to give so much as an inch towards accessibility or unearned sentiment. And it's this very stubborn conviction that makes it the masterpiece that it is.    

Personally, I love music and I love films about music but Whiplash's writer/ director Damien Chazelle takes virtually everything that I love about both music and music films and doesn't so much turn it inside out, as it does kick it in the balls and send it on its way. Music is one of the purest - if not the purest - forms of art in existence. It's something that touches the soul in a way that damn near nothing else of earth can. And films based on music - from A Hard Days Night to Inside Llewyn Davis - tend to thrive on this particular power. Even if, as in Inside Llewyn Davis, the characters themselves are having a rough time of it, the music itself is always presented as something fundamentally uplifting and life-affirming.

In a way, Whiplash seems to continue this tradition. Even if I'm not the world's greatest jazz fan, the music in the film is undeniably terrific: representing the very best of jazz with none of that self-indulgent waffling that tends to turn off those of us who don't see wanking about on your instrument as the truest form of artistic expression. Here's where Whiplash goes flying off the reservation, however. While the music is groovy, melodic and exhilarating to its very core - which is everything you could want from a successful music film - Whiplash presents the actual process of making such transcendent music as something that is just a broken back away from hell on earth.

When these characters perform, they do so with a grim physicality, rather than with any sense of spiritual or emotional expression. They seem constricted, rather than freed by the music they play; so dedicated to perfection that the performance itself loses any sense of joy. Again, it stands in stark contrast to the resulting music itself, while coming across as an utter perversion of all of our expectations - and it's precisely this tension that informs every inch of the film.

The plot, minimalist as it is, is about Andrew (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer trying to realize his dreams of becoming a great jazz drummer by joining a strict music conservatory. Standing between himself and the career of his dreams, however, is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a sadistically demanding instructor/ conductor who may be the very person to drive him to greatness - if he doesn't drive him to self-destruction first. Again, it's the tension - this time between humanity and excellence - that drives the plot along.

It's a story that asks whether the ends justify the means and whether it is worth sacrificing goodness for the sake of greatness, but, crucially, it never provides any easy answers. It's also, at the same time, a probing character study of two compelling but impossible-to-like individuals and the way they echo one another far more than they might want to admit.

While Andrew at first seems to be a fairly regular, if undeniably socially awkward guy, his drive towards not only greatness but perfection slowly threatens to rob him of even the few connections that he has in life - none more so than the promising new romance he strikes up with a pretty cinema usher (Melissa Benoist) and his father (Paul Reiser at his most down-to-earth and sympathetic), the one truly strong, constant relationship he has - even as he becomes more and more disconnected from any sense of reality beyond the music that drives him. Unlike the titular character of Inside Llewyn Davis, however, his struggle is not about being a "struggling artist", desperately trying to make a living with his music, but about a restless pursuit of perfection. It's a pursuit that is grounded in egoism, one that paradoxically (there's that word again) threatens to rob him of his humanity, the closer he comes to it. The ending of the film, therefore, is both triumphant and deeply tragic. And, no, I didn't just give it away.

Miles Teller has long been a young talent who has often been under-served by some seriously questionable roles (Project X, anyone?) but he's incredible as Andrew. Not only is he a clearly brilliant drummer (apparently he does all his own drumming in the film) but his ability to straddle the line between likeably flawed and monstrous is a perfect fit for this complicated and contradictory character.

Fletcher, on the other hand, is perhaps even more of an enigma than Andrew, even as J.K. Simmons is even more astounding in his role than Teller is in his. Simmons has long been an actor whose basic likability has been able to withstand, perhaps even break through, his most unlikable roles so it's perfectly fitting that though Fletcher comes across as a truly horrible human being ninety percent of the time, there's still a sense that maybe he's not the sadistic bully that he most often appears to be.

He probably is, mind you, because, like Andrew, his best intentions are basically grounded in a profound egoism (he wants to discover and nurture the greatest musicians around but it seems more out of a need for self-validity than for any "higher" purpose) but there's enough ambiguity there for the audience to hang on to and for Simmons to really play with. He just won the Oscar for best supporting actor at this year's Academy Awards and he easily earns it with every moment he's on screen here.

Not to dwell too much on the intellectual delights of Whiplash, though, because as powerful and as many as they are, the true power of the film is purely visceral. Everything from the claustrophobic direction, to the snappy but perfectly controlled editing to the acerbic, bitterly funny and razor sharp script ( even if you hate him for saying such things, Fletcher's vicious, profanity-laden put-downs are as hilarious as they are jaw-dropping) combine with the performances and the powerful music to make the film one of the most intense and viscerally exciting films I've seen in quite some time.

Whiplash is definitely not for the easily offended and it probably does work better the darker your sense of humour is, but it's a smart, endlessly enjoyable, funny, breathtaking, twisted and, most importantly, visceral piece of cinema that is an absolute must-see for anyone who has the stomach to take it.

Oh and even though I haven't managed to work it organically into my review, doesn't mean I'm not going to pass up a chance to say it...

"Not my fucking tempo!"

Ah. Bliss...


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