Whiplash

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Movie a Day Blog loves when an independent film comes along and steals the thunder from much larger and more heavily-pushed Academy Award contenders.

That’s why the success and recognition of WHIPLASH (2014, Theatrical) is so gratifying; think what it must feel like to writer-director Damian Chazelle.

Even if he didn’t get a Best Director nod, his film was nominated for his original screenplay, its editing and sound mixing, and for J.K. Simmons’ powerhouse performer as Fletcher, a psychopathic music teacher who would rather break his students than mentor them.

Honestly, if I taught at my arts school they way Simmons teaches at his, I would probably be in jail right now, or being hunted down and sued by the parents of students such as the abused one portrayed by Miles Teller in WHIPLASH. In other words, this is not a movie built on realism.

Teller plays Andrew, a young musician who is on a personal quest to be the best jazz drummer of the modern age, right up with the masters like Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Gene Krupa (whom I once saw perform when I was a 10-year-old). He is admitted to a prestigious fictional music academy that’s highly competitive even once¬† you’re in, and then he gets picked for the advanced group by Simmons.

What Teller endures for the next 100 minutes (the set-up happens relatively quickly) goes beyond the pale of human decency and compassion. And yet whatever Simmons is doing,¬† and whatever buttons he is pushing, it works, because Teller gets better and better, motivated by Simmons’ ridicule and disdain to practicing until his hands are literally bloody.

WHIPLASH has a tendency to overplay its hand, so to speak, by having the bloody stick-holders reoccur one time too many, but Chazelle’s point gets made. We can excel when we’re pushed beyond the normal limits, if we have the talent and the thick skin to endure the tactics of the person pushing.

Teller struggles with his fear of Simmons, his standards and his wrath, and his own lack of self-confidence. Teller has continued to evolve and improve as an actor, although I was struck by his singular screen presence as early as RABBIT HOLE (2010, Movie a Day 12/1/10). This is his best performance to date, perhaps because Simmons was going so balls-out as the maniacal teacher that Teller got the bar raised as both a character and an actor.

Simmons has been that modern rarity, a classic character actor who can play a variety of roles and moods. He is hilarious as the head of the CIA in the Coen Brothers’ BURN AFTER READING (2008) and warm and fuzzy in JUNO (2007). Ever since I first saw his intensity in the HBO prison series OZ I knew he would someday find the role he was meant for and WHIPLASH presents him with it.

Chazelle and Simmons first did WHIPLASH as a short film in 2013 that won the Jury Prize at Sundance, but the ability to stretch this tortured dynamic into a feature-length version that can hold our interest for 107 minutes is impressive. The tension in the relationship between Teller and Simmons is ratcheted up so severely that at times it strains credulity. Really, this guy should be arrested, especially for his vengeful behavior in the film’s penultimate sequence.

That’s not going to happen in the artificial world of WHIPLASH, but who needs realism when the emotions are so white-hot and pure? WHIPLASH is a tour-de-force of writing, acting and directing that pulls the viewer in and doesn’t let go until we’re as much of a limp noodle as Teller is at the end of his Keith Moon-like solos.

Simmons is probably the only likely Academy Award winner from WHIPLASH (although the sound work should be a contender), but Chazelle, with only his second feature film, demonstrates that he’s an artist with a strong vision and the ability to realize it. I’m looking forward to his future work.

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