Challenge Week 9: Whiplash

I’ve been meaning to see Whiplash since it came out a couple of years ago, so this recommendation was more like a “get on it already!” kick in the pants than getting me to see something I otherwise wouldn’t have – still, I gotta thank Alex for the kick in the pants, because this was just as great as I’d been hoping, if not more.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a drum student at the prestigious (and fictional) Shaffer Conservatory in New York, who wants nothing more than to make it into Studio Band, the most elite and respected jazz ensemble at the school – making a mark in Studio Band could lead to positions with the best professional ensembles in the country. The director of Studio Band is a notorious perfectionist, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who brooks no mistakes and no challenges to his authority.

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The film focuses closely on the complex relationship between these two – Andrew wanting Fletcher’s approval, but also chafing under his iron fist, pushing himself to the limit and suffering from physical and psychological trauma. It’s a tour de force for both actors, and writer/director Damien Chazelle ratchets up the intensity expertly. There are some moments that strain credulity – like Andrew’s post-car accident actions, though even that FEELS right for the character and the heightened intensity the film builds to.

The last sequence is possibly one of the best things I’ve seen all year, and it’s almost entirely wordless, built up only through the music and the negotiation playing out in the eyes and gestures of Andrew and Fletcher on stage. Not only is it a great performance (or, well, two of them), but it’s a microcosm of the whole movie, with Andrew out of his element at first, then taking over despite the warning in his former teacher’s eyes, and finally becoming a collaboration as the two together lead the rest of the band.

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Much ink has already been spilled, I’m sure, on Fletcher’s teaching style, which is even in the film considered psychologically abusive – but I have to admit, while I do think Fletcher goes too far, he’s not entirely wrong that students could probably be pushed more than they often are these days (though I’d expect music conservatories are pretty rigorous?). And the film does concede that Andrew probably became a potential Charlie Parker through the intense conflict/battle of the wills between him and Fletcher. But was it worth it? And even more so, the danger is in assuming that the goal of teaching is to find a Charlie Parker. Fletcher clearly idolizes genius and that’s really all that matters to him. Students who prove not to be geniuses are chewed up and thrown out. Ideally, you’d find a way to push people to be their best without destroying the ones whose best might be something less than, like, Charlie freaking Parker.

But anyway. I did note early on in the movie that it seemed odd to me that this jazz teacher was so incredibly intent on playing jazz to the note, when the whole soul of jazz is improvisation and personality. Granted, you need to learn to play by the rules before you can break the rules, but Fletcher seemed far too rule-bound. Perhaps that was all part of his winnowing process, though, as Andrew’s breakthrough is an ecstatic and contemporaneous drum solo. Perhaps Fletcher was just waiting for someone to defiantly improvise instead of following his rules.

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One side note – I’ve spent a significant amount of energy over the past couple of years telling people about Damien Chazelle’s debut film, which is NOT Whiplash, but a barely released musical romance about a young trumpet player called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It’s excellent, but now that I’ve seen Whiplash, I can say he’s only moving up. He’s definitely intent on bringing music and film together, and his next film Lalaland looks like another take on a classic Hollywood style musical. I can’t wait.

Stats and stuff…

2014, USA
written and directed by Damien Chazelle
starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Whiplash entered my chart:

Whiplash beats Outrage
Whiplash beats The Descendants
Whiplash beats 28 Up
Whiplash loses to Wings of Desire
Whiplash beats Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Whiplash loses to What’s Opera Doc
Whiplash loses to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Whiplash beats Marty
Whiplash beats Minority Report
Whiplash beats The Fugitive
Whiplash beats The Circus
Whiplash loses to The Story of Film: An Odyssey

Final ranking #310 out of 3597 films on my chart (91%)

It is now my #1 Damien Chazelle film, my #1 Miles Teller film, my #1 J.K. Simmons film (though he’s not listed for all of his films on Flickchart), my #9 Musical Drama, my #19 Psychological Drama, and my #1 film of 2014 (!!!).

Whiplash was recommended by Alex Lovendahl, a friend from the Flickcharters group on Facebook.

A few quotes…

Terence Fletcher: You’re here for a reason. You believe that, right?
Andrew: Yes.
Terence Fletcher: Say it.
Andrew: *I’m here for a reason*
Terence Fletcher: [Smiling] Cool.

Terence Fletcher: [Repeated line] Not my tempo.

Terence Fletcher: I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?
Andrew: Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.
Terence Fletcher: Exactly. Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax. Gets up to play at a cutting session, and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night, but the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices and he practices with one goal in mind, never to be laughed at again. And a year later, he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage, and plays the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones had just said: “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying.

Terence Fletcher: There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

Andrew: But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far, and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?
Terence Fletcher: No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.

A few more screenshots…

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