J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
With a killer score, fierce editing, and electrifying performances, Whiplash has been landing on several “best of” lists. Five minutes into this tight, tense movie and you’ll understand why.
Simmons – an old-school character actor who you’ve seen everywhere (Spiderman, Juno, Up in the Air, and the Farmers Insurance commercials) – finally gets his due. He’s the clear front-runner for Best Supporting Actor this year, playing a manipulative, maniacal jazz teacher and conductor.
Teller is a young man obsessed with drumming. When a late-night rehearsal catches the ear of Simmons, the crazed musician invites Teller into his prestigious college jazz ensemble. Simmons’ group always wins national competition. Simmons inspires hard work through psychological games, physical abuse, and mental terrorism.
Some people watching this sort of exploitation may wonder why people put up with it, how institutions let it happen. In my past – having been under some fairly dictatorial leadership from time to time (though none as bad as here) – I can tell you that students need the scholarship money. They also like the prestige. Colleges know these showy programs attract donations and more new students.
As Terrence Fletcher, Simmons has a great myth about how he’s making the next Charlie Parker. Parker played terribly in a Kansas City club one night in 1937, and famous drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. This sort of violence – according to Simmons – encouraged Parker to work even harder. The saxophonist returned triumphantly to the same stage the next year. The performance earned him the lifelong nickname “Bird.”
This attack gets turned into a legend meant to inspire music students. That sort of wholesale acceptance of abuse permeates many performing arts endeavors, business operations, and sports events. “If you’re tough enough to survive this crucible, you’re good enough to succeed in the business.” The supposed air of genius enables perpetual offenses.
Relatively unknown director/screenwriter Damian Chazelle has admitted that Whiplash is partially based on his own experiences. That’s apparent in the abrasive, realistic performances. Chazelle also has a great sense of picture, finding the interesting frame or angle for many shot. His tight script and rapid-fire editing make this movie zip with energy. There’s no wonder why this picture earned six nominations, including Best Picture.
As a side note, young Chazelle didn’t get nominated Best Director, much like brilliant Selma director Ava Duvernay. That’s because both have little contact with the mostly white, older, and male Academy voters who nominate Best Director. For an interesting article, read this Entertainment Weekly article: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2015/01/21/selma-ava-duvernay-oscar-snub/)
It’s wonderful to see a film brimming with such energy. Whiplash should probably be on your own “best of” list for this year.