Saturday, 13 September 2014

TIFF 2014 - Whiplash

Whiplash ends with possibly the most bracing cinematic moment of the year. A concert, some drumming and one helluva great resolution to the battle between the film's two main characters. The music, the editing, the performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and the entire rhythm of the scene results in a glorious and almost breathless conclusion - one that made me, at scene's end, let out a pent up "Yeah!". I never do that, but simply couldn't help myself.

But I'm getting ahead of things...Damien Chazelle's Sundance jury winning film (which won the audience award too) delves into the freshman year of Andrew Neyman (Teller) as he enters the renowned Schaefer Music school to study drumming - specifically jazz drumming. Based at least somewhat on Chazelle's own personal experiences with the drive to be the best and the constant pushing by teachers and rival students, the film focuses on Andrew's unhealthy relationship with his teacher Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Andrew is desperate to please him as it would be a sign that he's the best. He dreams of one day joining the legions of jazz greats and leaving behind a legacy. Fletcher, for his part, recognizes immediately that Andrew is a talent and brings him into the main performance band, but is relentless in his verbal abuse, intimidation and belittlement. Fletcher believes this to be the proper tactic to find the gems, but the relationship starts taking its toll...

Simmons is a powerhouse here. It's a surprise to no one of course, but he is on fire in just about every scene with his eyes burning, insults spewing and his physical presence filling up the frame. Those insults thrown mostly at students have their own rhythm and almost feel like improvised drum fills with pauses and staccato punches. Teller is terrific too (he obviously has drumming talent to go with the acting chops) as he descends into obsession. The music throughout the film is tremendous and comes in fits and starts, sharp bursts and long workouts. The title tune is a standout and gets replayed several times as the band practice it and Fletcher has them redo parts over and over and over (he doesn't discriminate who he tortures). The drums drive the film forward with a distinct pulse through raucous periods, through tension filled moments and even through a few of the quieter sections. It feels like the perfect vehicle to represent the insistent drive for perfection that consumes these characters. They may never reach it, but it's possible the film itself did.

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