Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Whiplash: The Frenzy of Ambition

Every year, there are movies that I know I ought to watch but keep putting off because they don't seem like my cup of tea. This year, Whiplash was one of those movies. I had heard good things, but nothing that made me think I would love it. But oh how wrong I was. Having seen it, this is one of my favorite movies of the year.

The premise is simple. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neimann, a nineteen-year old freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York City (cough Juilliard). He is a jazz drummer, and he aspires to be one of the greatest drummers the world has ever known. He tries to catch the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is the conductor of the school's premiere jazz band and is the man who can lead him to greatness. Unfortunately, this is not some Good Will Hunting-esque professor who will kindly teach Andrew how to achieve his dreams and wisely prepare him for the world. Fletcher is a foul-mouthed, chair-throwing, abusive, manipulative monster of a man and Whiplash is the story of what happens when you put two unlikable but insanely driven perfectionists in a room and force them to challenge each other.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (based on his own hellish personal experiences as a drummer in a high school jazz band), Whiplash is a breathtakingly frenetic and fantastic movie. I don't know anything about drumming, but Miles Teller certainly seemed to be drumming the hell out of every scene, and J.K. Simmons is simply terrifying, unpredictable, and brilliant. This should not be an easy movie to watch, but you cannot tear your eyes away from the screen as you see these two characters push themselves to the limit, scale the heights of insanity, and just keep going. All they care about is jazz, family and relationships be damned, and the drums pound relentlessly on until the final frame of the film.

Whiplash is a movie about music and the pursuit of unattainable standards of perfection. The final scene is the most pulse-pounding, magnificent thing I witnessed all year and showcases the power of cinema to just sweep you away without a single word. The astonishing music, the tight frantic editing, the sweat and blood pouring on to the drums: it's simply incredible. J.K. Simmons is assuredly walking away with an Oscar for this performance, and Damien Chazelle is a very solid contender for Best Adapted Screenplay. Whiplash is what independent cinema is all about: taut, intense, dramatic stories that start small but blow up into epic tales. It is a spellbinding piece of work.

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