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The talented Miles Teller plays 19-year-old protagonist Andrew Neiman, who’s pursuing his dream of mastering the drum kit in Whiplash.

Daniel McFadden

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Damien Chazelle
Directed by
Damien Chazelle
Starring
Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

A jazz-drumming prodigy is working hard at his double-time swing when his drill-sergeant conductor-instructor heaves a chair at his head. Almost hits him.

Just another day at Full Metal Juilliard.

Whiplash is an intense, unmelodious, highly amped and probably unrealistic drama set in the fictionalized Schaefer Conservatory in New York. The talented Miles Teller is the 19-year-old protagonist Andrew Neiman, a fiend for flashy Buddy Rich drumming and single-minded in his pursuit to be the best in his field. A romantic believer in Bryan Adams-level dedication, he plays until his fingers bleed.

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Either his nemesis or his career-maker is Terence Fletcher, a brutish, tight-ass tutor played to the hilt by the excellent J.K. Simmons. This guy, he's a piece of work. He's into industrial-strength mind games, takes to slapping his drumming student in the face to show him proper time-keeping, and has quite the mouth on him.

Jazz fingers? Jazz finger is more like it.

Simmons, who fills out a tight, black T-shirt real well for an actor his age (59), is legitimately receiving Oscar attention. A lot of the buzz about Whiplash, though, surrounds the young American writer-director Damien Chazelle, who as it happens, was a drummer in high school who trained under a monstrous mentor himself.

In an interview with Grantland, Chazelle explained Whiplash as a moral question: "If there's a case, even one isolated case, that brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behaviour?"

For narrative inspiration, Chazelle reaches back to a chestnut of an anecdote, involving the great jazz drummer Jo Jones and the iconic saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker. The story, which is told in Whiplash more than once by Fletcher, has to do with Jones flinging a drum cymbal at a teenaged Parker onstage during a jam session. Parker reacts to the public admonishment – if not decapitation – by working harder than ever and eventually becoming the genius player that he absolutely was.

(Jazz historians will dispute Whiplash's embellished version of the real tale, but the story serves its purpose. The jazzbos in the crowd will also probably have something to say about the realism of Teller's drumming chops as well, but the non-nerds will find his snare-tapping technique to be more than passable – much better than the dubious abilities Tara Reid showed in 2001's Josie and the Pussycats, for example.)

For all of his tutor's soul-demolishing methods, Neiman doesn't even seem to need the outrageous motivational techniques to be brutalized. He does a fair job of treating himself harshly. He pursues his goal of jazz greatness with super-narrow focus, at the cost of social alienation. He practises alone and doesn't seem to have any pals (or even jam-mates). He befriends a Fordham girl (played by Glee's watchable Melissa Benoist), only to rudely annul the relationship, callously explaining to her that she would become a distraction.

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And so, the film's more natural question – as opposed to Chazelle's contrived moral dilemma – is whether or not an artist's pursuit of a lofty goal is justified if it comes at the cost of well-rounded life.

The young man's concerned father (warmly played by Paul Reiser) would probably answer no. He's a failed writer who doesn't want his son to be a failed anything; he's relieved when it seems, at one point, that his son's artistic dreams have been dashed. As well, he sees his son's teacher as an authoritarian monster who causes his boy severe anxiety.

In turn, Simmons's character would see the drummer's father as one who mollycoddles. He believes that "good job" are the two most harmful words to a generation of protected youths. His mission is to "push people beyond what is expected of them," and without that push he could be "depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong."

Or, getting back to the film's central anecdote, the next Charlie Parker

The thing is, the teacher's frustration probably has more to do with his own failings than any possible great loss to jazz. Because if he hasn't been able to cajole a player into reaching Parker's level of dedication to (and mastery of) his instrument, perhaps the reason is that he, as a motivator, is no Jo Jones. "Not my tempo," Fletcher says, when the pace of the drummer's swing isn't quite his thing. Turns out, it's his speed, not anyone else's, that is wrong.

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