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  Whiplash Drummed Into You
Year: 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Susanne Spoke, Max Kasch, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair, Kofi Sirboe, Kavita Patil, C.J. Vana
Genre: Drama, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Andrew (Miles Teller) dreams of becoming a professional jazz drummer, and with that in mind has joined a music conservatory to pursue that goal. He recognises he must be single-minded, but quite how single-minded he may not be ready for; Charlie Parker is his idol, a musician he considers the greatest of the twentieth century, and if Andrew could be spoken of in the same terms then he would die a happy man, not necessarily as young as Bird did, however, though even if that were the case, the glory would be to his great satisfaction. There is one tutor in the academy who every student fears, and he is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), renowned for his discplinarianism: will he whip Andrew into shape?

When Whiplash (named after a particular piece of music the protagonist must practice to the point of exhaustion) appeared on the scene, it may not have been a blockbusting box office success, but artistically it could hold its head high, at least according to its many fans who rated it extremely highly. Director Damien Chazelle had already penned the script for a similarly music-obsessed movie in Grand Piano, yet where that involved a hero who had to keep playing every note precisely correct on pain of death, here the hero, er, well there was the possibility he was going to die for his muse too, only this was not a thriller. Not ostensibly, but Chazelle arranged his sequences as if it really was.

A fair few were keen to point out the connections between this and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the first half of that at least, but they were forgetting another higher education-related movie that had also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for its most dynamic performance, and that was 1973's The Paper Chase. Although in that case the presentation was a lot different, the essential themes were the same, being a consideration on what you truly gain from working yourself so hard to learn when everything else in your life went to pot as a result. The older effort was a lot more stately in spite of John Houseman's intimidating delivery of the lecturer's personality, but the results were the same, the student we follow taking everything he does extremely personally.

Here Chazelle traced the route of that earlier movie to a point, but he felt the need to amp up the tension to the extent that you genuinely anticipated a death was right around the corner for at least one of the people we were watching, and that may have been the case though it happens to a character we never see. That question on whether the drive for absolute perfection makes you a better person or if in fact the opposite turns out to be true very much depended on what you took away from Andrew pushing his ability to the limit; certainly be becomes an excellent drummer, but he alienates everyone around him, ends up with no friends and the nice girl he was seeing (Melissa Benoist) is driven away, so what has he gained? The respect of someone who was never going to be satisfied?

He may not have that either, and Chazelle pulled the same trick Houseman did all those years ago when we were asked to enter a field of study so specialised that we have no understanding of exactly what the students are doing right or wrong. Unless you're a total expert in musicianship, you won't be aware in the slightest what the disparity between Andrew's drumming at the beginning and what it was like in the grandstanding finale, it all sounds fair enough to the untrained ear, which will keep you on your toes as Fletcher's stream of abuse rains down on all and sundry, or have you starting to wonder if anyone could ever get away with teaching in that intense, never mind downright insulting, method. He doesn't come across as the most encouraging of masters, and the script emphasised that to a preposterous degree, making for vibrant cinema but rather absurd melodrama. That said, it wouldn't be half the film it was without Simmons' blistering reading of what amounts to a villainous role, and its sheer energy was undeniably impressive. Music by Justin Hurwitz.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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