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July 2015


cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, and Austin Stowell

director: Damien Chazelle

106 minutes (15) 2014
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington


Albert Ayler called music "the healing force of the universe." That it can be destructive to individual lives is also part of its mythic lure. This is a jazz film. There haven't been too many great jazz films recently, not since maybe Clint Eastwood's Bird (1988). The TV series Fame (1982-7) follows the rise of students at the fictional 'New York City High School For The Performing Arts'. This film, following the fall semester of jazz music students, is set in the 'Shaffer Conservatory Of Music' supposedly in New York, but actually filmed in Los Angeles, with some financial support from the Sundance Institute. Although set in the ballet world, Black Swan (2010) shows how Natalie Portman's character Nina is driven to the physical and psychological limits in the quest for an impossible ideal of artistic perfection. Whiplash is all these things, sometimes more and sometimes less. And it's a beautifully intense study of extremes.

It's both jazz-smart, and cine-literate. When 19-year-old aspirant drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) goes to the movies with his Pennington High School writer/ teacher father (Paul Reiser) there's Rififi on the hoarding, the 1955 French noir film directed by blacklisted émigré filmmaker Jules Dassin. When the Conservatory band takes the stage to play the Overbrook jazz competition they feature Duke Ellington's 1936 standard Caravan (also featured in two Woody Allen films!). There's Stan Getz on the soundtrack too. But Andrew's particular hero is Buddy Rich, he has his inspirational monochrome Birdland photo tacked to his wall. Plus the drummer's adage "If you don't have ability you wind up playing in a rock band." Rich didn't have much time for rock 'n' roll. Jazz is the superior art form. It demands an intimidating level of dexterity.

When his father advises "When you get to my age you get perspective," Andrew responds "I don't want perspective." Perspective is for wimps. He's intent on taking it all the way. He fancies Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works the cinema popcorn concession. But when he takes her out for a pizza he's concentrating more on the jazz background music than he is on her. And when their dating threatens to detract from his rehearsals he 'breaks it off clean' to better concentrate on his drums. He has a path. He's going to be great. He has bigger things to pursue.

But the real axis of the film pivots on Neiman and charismatic hard-line tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-conductor humiliates and bullies, using racist and homophobic jibes to provoke and antagonise, he hurls a chair at Neiman's head, and slaps his face. "This is not your boyfriend's dick," he taunts, "don't come early." He reduces an out-of-tune horn-player to tears, calling him 'Elmer Fudd'. Neiman practices until his hands are raw and the tympani is blood-spattered, plunging bleeding hands into an ice-bucket. Then, when Fletcher's former protégé dies - supposedly in an auto-accident, it later emerges that no, it was due to "anxiety and depression driven to suicide," caused by Fletcher's extreme methods. There's a hearing in which Neiman gives supposedly confidential evidence.

Dismissed from Shaffer for physically attacking Fletcher, he dumps his Buddy Rich poster, and neglects his drums. Should he phone Nicole? When he does it's too late, she's got a new boyfriend. Then by chance he sees that 'Nowells Live Jazz Bar' is featuring Terence Fletcher's piano trio. He sneaks in to watch the set. Afterwards, they talk, in a seeming human reconciliation. Fletcher admits to "pushing people beyond what's expected," but tells an anecdote about drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal at a teenage Charlie 'Bird' Parker, galvanising him to genius. "The truth is, I never had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And I will never apologise for how I tried." And, as a parting shot, Fletcher offers him the drum-chair of his group at the upcoming JVC festival. But there are more twists, betrayals, and treachery to come in the climatic performance, with an extended drum solo to ignite it all.

This is a jazz film. There are solid music sequences, a three-cornered drum-duel taken 'faster-faster-faster.' It helps if you're into that kind of thing. Jazz bible Downbeat didn't like it, tearing apart its 'unrealistic depiction,' its historical and technical inaccuracies. I suspect they were being a mite too partisan, for Teller's Neiman is convincing, and Simmons is impressively intense as the driven Fletcher. And even as a low-key indie project this film works as a beautifully intense study of extremes.

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