Whiplash (2014): What Price Perfection?

This is one movie Tiger Mom can wholeheartedly approve. There’s a line spoken by the critical-to-the-point-of-sadistic music teacher Mr. Fletcher:

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

In a sense, Whiplash can be taken as the dramatization of that Tiger Mom philosophy.

Whiplash Movie Still

The 2014 Sundance winner is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature. In Whiplash, which he also wrote, Chazelle tells a very original story, the training of a music student and the intense, ambivalent relationship between a mentor and his trainee. How far can a teacher go before crossing the line into abuse, however well the teacher’s intention to draw out the best from the student?

We see the tortuous journey a promising jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), has to embark on as he freshly enters the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in NYC. I’m not in the position to say whether it indirectly reflects upon which music school, so I better not dwell on this further. But one thing I do agree is that, yes, the Western way is too full of praise. The pursuit of excellence is often replaced by that of fun, and complacency and self-satisfaction (to protect self-esteem) the stumbling block to improvement. Tiger Mom can attest to that too.

Andrew has all intentions to learn and master top notch drumming skills under the demanding tutelage of Fletcher. He doesn’t want to be just a good drummer, he wants to be great, and he is willing to pay the price to get there. Being selected to play in Fletcher’s studio jazz band is a coveted privilege, staying in there requires nothing short of the physical and mental endurance as required in a war zone.

Like the drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), yelling insults and putdowns at the young recruits, shattering egos and self-confidence, Fletcher keeps his players in shipshape form by ruthless coercion and intimidation. He demands perfection. J. K. Simmons is most impressive in his role as Fletcher. What a transformation to Mr. Hyde from the kind and loving Dad in Juno (2007). It is likely that he will have a place in the award nominations come the next two months.

Miles Teller as Andrew is equally tenacious. Thus we see a dynamic duo in contention, excellent acting from both. Teller may have lots of competition when it comes to a Best Actor nom, but he is still young and has fuel for miles to come. His drumming skills are impressive too, or is it the excellent camera and editing work?

The agile camera is effective in depicting the intensity of the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher, capturing the dramatic effects like a thriller, with manic drumming in impossibly fast tempo and the exasperating face of Andrew’s that exudes both anguish and determination. Seamless editing, gripping cinematography and sound are prominent elements that will likely be acknowledged at award noms.

What price perfection? What does a student have to do to gain acceptance and respect from his teacher, the one whose approval that matters most in his training?

What started off as realistic storytelling a la suspenseful drama in the first two acts begins to transform into a totally different genre more like magical realism in the final scenes. Like Gone Girl is a dramatic exaggeration of a marriage gone wrong, Whiplash is a hyperbole of a troubled teacher/student relationship taken to the extreme.

How to get to Carnegie Hall is not only by way of practice, practice, practice, but also entails plenty of blood, sweat, and tears. We see the free flow of all the above in the movie.

Despite my reluctance to fully embrace the ending sequences, I have thoroughly enjoyed the movie. A very original story idea well executed as a suspense thriller, add in some fine jazz music and mood setting technical effects, Whiplash is an impressive production from a young writer/director with great potential. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any real life similarity between him and his protagonist.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Also wins Oscar in Sound Mixing, Editing.

Feb. 21, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: 3 BAFTA wins for Best Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound.

Jan. 15, 2015: 5 Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Jan. 11: J. K. Simmons wins Golden Globe

Dec. 11: J. K. Simmons gets Golden Globe nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 10: J. K. Simmons gets SAG nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 7: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle

Whiplash has received 4 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (J. K. Simmons), and Best Editing.