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New Release Review - Whiplash

A music conservatory student pushes himself to meet the standards set by his tutor.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser




Drummers are widely considered the odd ones out of the music scene. Despite performing the most important part of the ensemble, keeping the beat, they often find themselves the butt of jokes, the most likely to die in a plane crash or choke on their own vomit (or someone else's). In no other musical genre does the percussionist stand out like in jazz. In a world dominated by working class African-American musicians, drummers are usually white and middle class, for the simple reason of economics - a drum kit is highly expensive to purchase and maintain. While the trumpeter may have a desire to create music running through his veins, drummers regularly pick up their sticks for the first time thanks to a childhood birthday or Christmas present, developing a newfound passion for music rather than sating an inbred compulsion.
Andrew (Teller) is one such drummer, a kid out of time who obsesses over jazz recordings made long before his birth, spending his evenings watching old French crime movies at a revival theatre before retiring alone to his dorm room while the hip-hop beats of his contemporaries fill the corridors of his building. He's a student at New York's Shaffer Conservatory, considered America's finest music school, a breeding ground for house performers at the Lincoln Center, the modern mecca for jazz lovers in the city. A shy and awkward lad, he's too good for his class, and when his talent is recognised by Terence Fletcher (Simmons), the intimidating conductor of the school's top band, he is given the break he's longed for, a cat house piano wheeled to the big house.
Fletcher's approach to tutoring seems to have been inspired by R Lee Ermey's Full Metal Jacket drill sargeant, frequently bringing his students to tears with a torrent of psychological abuse that veers into the realms of homophobia, sexism and bigotry. A high level of suspension of disbelief is required on the part of the viewer to buy into a music conservatory allowing one of their tutors behave in such a manner, but if you can accept it you're in for a thrilling ride, as Fletcher and Andrew play a game of cat and mouse that verges on a sub-dom relationship.
Andrew takes Fletcher's abuse and thrives on it, which is exactly what Fletcher wants, desperate to find the one student he'll be remembered for. Our opinion of Fletcher and his aggressive methods changes from scene to scene, sometimes agreeing with his railing against the 'everyone gets a medal' culture ("the two most harmful words in the English language are 'good job'"), other times cringing when he crosses the line in his words and actions. Early on he engages Andrew in what seems like a friendly exchange, inquiring about his student's family background, but minutes later we see he was simply fishing for ammunition to use against Andrew in his psychological battles, mocking his father's high school teaching job and his mother's decision to walk out on him as a child.
Tears flow from Andrew's cheeks but it's water off a duck's back thanks to his ruthless determination to succeed and desperation to become one of the greats. With tunnel vision, he clears room in his life by dumping his girlfriend and alienating his family, willing to sacrifice a life for a legacy. But what Andrew doesn't understand from the outset is that Fletcher's approach is completely misjudged. Fletcher employs the methods of a sports coach, and like so many bad coaches, he can't recognise flair, only blood and sweat, drilling his wannabe percussionists to achieve a high speed of sticksmanship as though they were training for a 100 metre dash rather than a three minute solo. He's more concerned with tempo than talent, because he can measure the former.
Teller has previously been associated with playing unlikable 'dude-bro' types in offensive frat-boy movies like Project X, 21 & Over and That Awkward Moment, but here he's given a chance to play a character that couldn't be more different and he pulls it off like a star reborn. Simmons is fantastic too, but his is the easier, showier role. Watching their relationship develop from simple bullying to full-on sparring is like taking a front row seat at Caesar's Palace - you'll be shielding your popcorn from an imagined hail of blood, sweat and bile.
Writer/director Chazelle was previously best known for some unremarkable genre screenplays but his own background in music means we're in safe and confident hands here as he immerses us in the backstabbing milieu of the conservatory, where being told you're not good enough hurts like few other truths, a blow to both your planned career and your greatest love. On the evidence of his second feature as director, Chazelle is good enough.




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