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Monday, January 19, 2015

An Everyman's Movie Review: Whiplash

"If you want the part, earn it"

- Terrence Fletcher-

Whiplash is a film by (essentially) first time writer/director Damien Chazelle about drive and what it takes to be the best. In order to become the best at your specific craft it takes a combination of desire, training, and being pushed to never settle. Chazelle uses a Jazz Conservatory and a drummer as his medium to tell this particular story, but really, this story could relate to any profession.

The story follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) as he enters his first year at Shaffer Conservatory- the best music school in the country. Andrew is a drummer forced to play second fiddle in one of the school's lower bands. Soon he gets discovered by the conductor of the school's elite jazz program, Terrence Fletcher played by the incredible character actor J.K. Simmons. Andrew then becomes immersed in this band and learns very early on what Terrence Fletcher does to make his band and the players in it truly great.

Terrence Fletcher is this generation's Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) from Full Metal Jacket in that he instills fear in his players by spewing the worst insults imaginable. However, unlike Gny. Sgt. Hartman who's sole purpose is to say things that make high schoolers laugh and looks good on a YouTube clip, Terrence Fletcher is a three dimensional human being. He's not a bad guy, not really, he just does what he can do to elevate these young musicians. He's a dick and you want to punch him in the face, but you also get where he's coming from as well. That's what makes J.K. Simmons portrayal of Terrence Fletcher just so incredible and Oscar worthy. Any actor can spew insults, but not every actor can bring humanity to a monster. There's a moment where Terrence Fletcher is talking to a friend of his and his young daughter. Fletcher learns that his friend's daughter just stated playing the piano. He very sweetly asks the little girl if she'll one day play for his band. When you see that scene you think to yourself, "Run little girl run! Do not be a part of this awful man's band!". However, at the same time, Fletcher actually means it. He's not putting on a false facade for the sake of his friend, he's just being polite like you or I would.

While many people would see J.K. Simmons' portrayal of this music conductor as false, I actually had a similar music conductor to Terrence Fletcher when I was in high school. One of my neighbors who lived a few houses down from me was the conductor of my high school's band. Because my neighbor had a son in my class all throughout my childhood, I saw him decently often and he would always be polite and genial to me. I would hear stories about how awful of a man this was but I refused to believe it because I never saw that side of him before. Then I started playing drums and made my way into his band. He was in charge of over 300 students for his marching band and he was a nasty sonuvabitch. While he never said (or could have said) anything close to what Terrence Fletcher said, he would single you out and yell at you in front of everybody if you messed up bad enough (which I did once). But as I look back on my experience a decade later, I realized he needed to be a dick. There's just no way he could have controlled all of us asshole punk kids or bring out the best in us without being a dick.

Despite my experience playing drums for a dick of a music conductor, I actually couldn't relate a whole lot to this movie, mainly because I liked playing the drums and I wanted to be good, but I never wanted to be the best. Andrew Neiman wanted to be the very best and practiced his fucking ass off to become the best. He literally bleed (and sweat, holy shit was there a lot of sweat) for his craft. I didn't enjoy these characters and get sucked into this plot because of any sense of nostalgia, I was thoroughly engrossed because Damien Chazelle did an incredible job with everything.

As terrible of a person as Terrence Fletcher was, the film's protagonist, Andrew, wasn't a whole lot better. He did some pretty terrible things in order to make his way to top including breaking up with his girlfriend and pissing off everyone else who stepped in his way. Yet through it all, you still rooted for Andrew to succeed. That speaks wonders to the acting chops of future superstar Miles Teller. Teller was not only great as this kid who would do whatever it takes to be best and a kid you wanted to be the best, but he did most of the drumming himself. Teller taught himself to play the drums at 15, but he needed to learn to play like professional- all while changing his grip. You can fake playing the piano, you absolutely can not fake playing the drums. Teller practiced for hours a day for two straight months to perfect some ancillary skill to his acting. I bring this up not to only shower as much praise on Teller as I can (because he was fan-freaking-tastic in the film) but because I think what he had to do for Whiplash was infinitely harder than what someone like Eddie Redmayne had to do for The Theory of Everything. Redmaye's physical acting of feigning a disability is something any actor in Hollywood can do, but the kind of convincing drumming that Teller did in Whiplash is something far less people could have successfully pulled off. The fact that someone like Redmayne received an Oscar nomination but Teller did not is mind-boggling.

Whiplash is first and foremost a character study on what a young kid must do to be the best and what a mentor must do to bring out the best in a person. The journey these two characters take each other on is just incredible. The fact that a film cost only a mere three million to make if even more outstanding. Whiplash is by far and away the best film of 2014 and one I hope you wish dish out your cold hard cash to go see.



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