Mister Cinecal

Mister Cinecal

Monday, 19 January 2015

Brash Flash Smash uh..Non-Trash Whiplash

J.K. Simmons has always been one of the most dependable character actors around. He's a real 'get' for a cast for a film, tv show, cartoon or video game. Equally believable as the dorky but loving dad from Juno or the unrelentingly twisted neo-Nazi from Oz, Simmons is often one of the best parts of whatever he's in. It's pleasing then to see him get his due in a high-profile role in a 'big' indie, deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actor after a great performance. The role of jazz maestro Terrence Fletcher is a 'get' itself for a character actor like Simmons, and he knocks it out of the park. And into outer space. It's a simplification to call him a "villain" but he's one of the best in American films for the last few years.


The film wastes no time in introducing the domineering Terrence Fletcher, a conductor at the prestigious music school Schaffer Conservatory. The film starts by observing young Andrew Neiman as he drums, working his arse off despite seemingly being alone. It turns out we're not the only ones silently observing Neiman. Fletcher interupts Neiman when he tries to speak, asks disarming questions, walks away mid-performance and is generally dismissive. He's horrible, but an instant impression is given of a man you want to impress, even if only to show him. Neiman jumps at the opportunity to get into Fletcher's jazz band, because Fletcher has such a strong reputation and Neiman yearns not just to be great, but "one of the greats". Fletcher pushes his drummer incredibly harshly, but a close second is how close Neiman pushes himself.

It's fortunate that Miles Teller puts in such a good performance himself as Neiman, as the film is so totally focused on him and his relationship with Fletcher, no one else gets much speaking to do. There's a perfunctory girlfriend introduced only to be broken up with and a father Neiman gets on with reasonably well but who can't possibly understand his ambitions. He has no friends, and while that's partly because of the high-pressure nature of Schaffer, it's also partly because Neiman is too focused on his goal of being a great jazz musician, and in response to Fletcher's manipulation and abuse he grows increasingly tetchy and self-centered. Teller does a great job making his character compelling but unlikable without overstepping into Eisenberg-esque theatrics and is really physical in his impressive drumming scenes, at times he looks like some kind of jazz Phidippides, so exhausted that he's just going to collapse into pieces. He's an interesting character to watch go through the ringer, so quickly associating his dream of being a great drummer with just making an impression on Fletcher in any capacity; finally impressing him or finally showing him. Either way Fletcher's playing him like a fiddle. Or some kind of jazz instrument.
He's playing him like a gross bloody drum

It would be easy for Simmons to just devour the scenery, but while he does get plenty of opportunities to shout, throw things around (including slurs) and curse up a storm (someone needs to team Simmons up with Armando Ianucci asap), he's even more interesting when he's quiet. A perfectly charming communicator so long as there's not a musician out of tempo nearby, he's deliberately friendly to newcomers but turns on them on a dime. It's all part of his way of pushing his students and adds to the tension of the film, it's always difficult to know what he's going to do next. Fletcher gets his own Villain Motive Rant about pushin students and from him, to him it all sounds kind of reasonable, even if he is justifying berating and physically abusing people in the name of jazz. Really repellant.

There's a scene where Neiman spies on Fletcher as he performs on the piano with a small band that contrasts to the beginning; where Neiman was tensed even before he knew he was being watched, so desperate to improve, Fletcher looks totally at ease for the only time in the film. There are no self-imposed standards here. It's also the only time someone looks to be getting joy from the music. There really isn't that much passion for music in Whiplash, it's technical perfection that Fletcher and Neiman seek, the music itself isn't a release for them. It kind of seems against the spirit of jazz from my limited understanding to be honest, but this film really has more in common with the likes of The Master than films celebrating music or musicians.

While the interactions between the two are great, there are times when the script falters, relying on coincidence to drive the story forward on occasions when Fletcher doesn't (indeed their was at least one occasion where I was sure he was behind something that he wasn't). And a device like Neiman's girlfriend-one of two women who speaks in the film, with a few minutes more screentime-feels unnecessary. His ambition and difficulty with personal relationships come through clearly enough already, so she either could have been given more or cut entirely. Other aspects of the film making more than make up for this though, in particular the great music and of course, the performances of Simmons and Teller. For those two alone, Whiplash makes a splash, is worth your cash and uh...won't give you a rash. Probably.

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