Monday, 19 January 2015

Whiplash (2014)

The inspirational music teacher you’ve never had before

Whiplash has a singular gimmick: imagine if the teacher in that inspirational music teacher drama (Mr Holland’s Opus, Les Choristes, Dangerous Minds, School of Rock, etc.) were played by the abusive, sadistic, F-bomb dropping drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket or the perpetually angry Pai Mei from Kill Bill.

JK Simmons is that drill sergeant from hell, cast as a legendary teacher in a fictional New York jazz conservatory. An invitation to play in Mr Neiman’s competition band means you’re set for life if you make an impression with the judges at the nationals but before then you’ll have to put up with the hairdryer treatment (and then some) in his equally legendary rehearsal sessions. Miles Teller is the middle class kid with no musical background, big dreams, and some talent at drumming (but is it enough?) who is inducted into a world of fear, pain, self-loathing, and dread.

On his first rehearsal, the young man is reduced to tears, mocked for tearing up, and then berated for slobbering all over the drum set. What follows is a boot camp drama set in a music school populated by a cast of characters who are all, save for the drill sergeant mentor, in the wrong genre altogether. But what makes Whiplash a must-see is how writer-director Chazelle, Teller, and Simmons conspire to make the emotionally gruelling boot camp drama fit the genre expectations of the inspirational teacher drama, right under our noses.

Simmons gets to chew the scenery and set it on fire, but he also has to convince the audience that there’s a method in his madness: he’s doing it for the good of everyone (especially the much picked-on and long-suffering newbie student), and that there’s a beautiful pay-off in the end. The entire film falls on his shoulders; it is his performance that determines if the film’s gimmick succeeds or fails.

It’s a task made more difficult because of the fanciful script. Whiplash bears as much correspondence to actual jazz and jazz conservatories as say, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan had anything to do with actual ballet and dance companies. The script simply gets music rehearsals and jazz so, so wrong. But it is Simmons whose raw emotionality and conviction that saves the script and the film’s gimmick again and again, and makes Whiplash a memorable, even inspirational drama.

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