“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Terrence Fletcher, the black-clad perfectionist conductor driving his orchestra insane with his demands. Fletcher wants more, always. Emotion, excuses, bloodied hands, commitment: none of it impresses him unless accompanied by actual greatness. And it never is. “Good job,” words many an American parent uses to condition a child, a verbal pat on the back for tying shoelaces or finishing a plate of spaghetti, thus, is naturally something that isn’t quite Fletcher’s tempo.
But then what does measure up? Fletcher demands the best, and his students bend over backwards trying earnestly, dutifully, vainly, suicidally to give it to him while he bites their heads off like an easily irked dragon. JK Simmons plays Fletcher with firebreathing abandon, using awful verbal guillotines every bit as lethal as the cymbal that almost decapitated Charlie Parker and spurred him to become the legend known simply as Bird. Near-death, Fletcher seems to feel, gave Parker his wings.
An unforgiving silhouette teaching at New York’s famed Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Fletcher’s longstanding dream of finding a Bird and letting him loose seems all but impossible till he runs into Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man craving to be pushed to perfection, one who fanatically sees himself as one of the greats, one who deserts romance because it may possibly distract him from the drums some day. After all, as the Buddy Rich quote on his wall screams at him, “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band.”
Director Damien Chazelle’s stunning and absorbing Whiplash takes these two freaks – this old man with a tongue made of daggers and this youngster with alarming amounts of focus – and pits them against each other in a delicious, deadly battle of jazz. They glide toward unscaleable peaks forsaking their lives, their careers, their families, their sanity… and all for what?
Whiplash is a sexy, sexy film, strikingly shot and beautifully paced, a film that captivates right from the start and reels in the viewer in that seductive way only the finest jazz can. The music is jawdropping and works its magic regardless of how unschooled the viewer may be, perhaps because of how Fletcher makes them play the same sections over and over again, especially the Hank Levy piece, ‘Whiplash,’ that lends its name to the film’s title.
Teller, playing the surly, self-absorbed Andrew, does spectacularly well as a character impossible to like, not to mention a phenomenal banger of the drums, a man savaging drumheads as if he were doing kung fu with chopsticks. Simmons, playing the maniac, is even better, all quips and one-handed quietening and the single-minded focus of a fascist who truly believes in himself. Scary good.
Chazelle’s film starts brilliantly and soon turns brutal, and it can be construed by some as a romanticisation of tyranny, a film that gives far too much importance to unrealistic standards and puts striving for them on a pedestal, but my reading is that Whiplash doesn’t idealize either of its two leads – though it is at times a tad sympathetic toward them – but rather shines a glaring, (mostly) unforgiving spotlight on both sets of unreasonable expectations, a spotlight that is best witnessed flashing across Simmons’ eyes at the very end of Whiplash.
We dream different dreams, and if two men tear their own lives apart in pursuit of something they treasure above all else, then who are we to dictate the price they ought pay? As a certain Mr Inarritu will attest, there’s something to be said about embarking on an impossible hunt for a Bird.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, February 20, 2015