Almanac Cinema: Extreme Whiplash

This article first appeared on The Footy Almanac on November 28 2014, when the film Whiplash was first released. From 12:30pm EDST today the 87th Annual Academy Awards will be presented. With Whiplash nominated across a range of categories including Best Picture and J.K Simmons for Best Supporting Actor, perhaps it’s timely to revisit this review of the film. 

 

If you haven’t seen Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash  yet, the most simplistic way to summarise it is the story of a young and ambitious drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), in his first year at a prestigious New York conservatory who relentlessly yearns for the approval of an intimidating bandleader.

Alternatively, Whiplash is –  as Executive Producer Jason Reitman described it – “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard”.

Describe it however you want, this film is a must-see for music lovers.

I’m no jazz aficionado, but I appreciate it as an art form and I appreciate it as a style of music. I’m captivated by the narrative that explains jazz music as a music “that welcomes you if you come to it” as Wynton Marsalis says.

Similar to baseball, jazz is a genuinely American pastime. And like baseball, the history of jazz music is inextricibly entwined in the country’s dark history of slavery and institutionalised racial oppression.

It is a music born of a society that liked to say aloud all were created equal but silently enshrined a way of life that proscribed some to be much less equal than others.

It rose above the south’s stultifying Jim Crow laws to become a fledgling post-Civil War nation’s babysitter at the dawn of the 20th century, before becoming its spirit guide – carrying a people through the roaring twenties, the despair of the depression years, the anger of Pearl Harbour and then the unbridled optimism that followed the end of horrifc wars in Europe and the Pacific.

Jazz is the music of hope, tragedy and liberation. It is all-consuming and becomes an obsession for those who try to master it – just like the surfer who searches the world for the perfect wave.

The trials and tribulations of jazz luminaries like Buddy Bolden, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and most notably, Charlie Parker, are at the heart of what Whiplash explores and asks; are you only entitled to be considered ‘great’ when there’s suffering, rejection and heartache in your journey? Are you only worthy of being considered ‘capable’ after some right-of-passage steeped in bullying, malice, insidious manipulation and the destruction of someone’s spirit?

“I push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity…. There are no two words in the english language more harmful than ‘good job’… “(J.K Simmons as Terence Fletcher, Whiplash (2014))

I enjoyed Whiplash immensely. It is well-written, brilliantly photographed (any movie still shot on 35mm in this digital age is a winner in my book) and the direction is first-rate.

The music production is also brilliant, expertly capturing the nuances of the pieces the movie focuses on; the eponymous Whiplash and Duke Ellington’s legendary Caravan to showcase the challenges playing these songs presents to performers.

If you don’t ‘get’ Jazz, – or at least appreciate the history and the stories behind luminaries of the art form such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, then Whiplash is definitely Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard.

Conversely, if you have an appreciation for the litany of stories across all walks of life in sport, faith, business and the performing arts where people have hit rock bottom in order to discover their ‘greatness’ then there’s plenty for you to sink your teeth into here.

While his competition in the Best Supporting Actor category is tough, J.K Simmons has so far collected a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a BAFTA for his portrayal of the malevolent band leader – Terence Fletcher – and I have my fingers crossed that later this afternoon, he adds an Oscar to his trophy cabinet.

Simmons’ dark and machiavellian performance in Whiplash is on par with Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lector, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery, or Michael Parks’ chilling Abin Cooper in Red State.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman – the ingenuous freshman who idolises the big band drumming powerhouses Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich – is also noteworthy and suggests a fruitful career lay ahead with some astute management and  assiduous choices when it comes to future film role choices.

Whiplash is definitely not a family movie and the language used in the film might put some off, but in exploring the lengths musicians will go to in order to gain acceptance and approval from their peers, it’s an astounding and thought-provoking piece of cinema and entertainment.

 

Channel Nine screens the 87th Academy Awards live from 12:30pm EDST today.

 

 

About Stone Cold Steve Baker Thompson Harvey Duckworth

Weapons-grade Grump. Quixotic. Jack of all Trades and Master of None. Ex-power forward for Melbourne Superules FC. Quoter of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. Gun-for-hire, sleep enthusiast, contrarian. Meshuggener. Nebbish. Kibitzer. The dude abides.

Comments

  1. Steve,

    I saw this film on Monday night courtesy of the Noosa Film Society. Not a pretty movie but certainly engaging, confronting, musically uplifting and an acting tour de force by the two leads, Teller and Simmons. I, too, thoroughly enjoyed the film but came away thinking that, in spite of their achievements and “excellence”, neither Andrew nor Fletcher was a particularly likeable person, mostly due to their total commitment to their “success” at the cost of everything and everyone else. By contrast, this week we have seen the tragedy of Phil Hughes where much of the commentary has highlighted his drive and determination to succeed coupled with his humility and down-to-earth humanity, hence the outpouring of respect and affection for the person as well as his skill. Now that’s a legacy to treausre.

  2. Thanks Steve. Sounds great. As a big fan I know there’s a Miles Davis biopic coming, apparently crowdsourced by Don Cheadle. I like jazz, but it’s had its fair share of abusive, addicted misfits over the years.

  3. Finally saw Whiplash yesterday and it is every bit the enthralling and engaging movie you said Steve. Brilliant at so many levels. The music, the acting and the cinematography.
    When I tried to work out why it was so powerful it seemed it was that “it makes you think”. And not about great issues of the day, but great issues of the everyday. Being essentially a two-hander between student and teacher it touches on all those themes we all grapple with through our lives. Ambition or contentment? Good or great? Effort or perspective? Bitter truth or gentle lies? What might have been? What still could be? Getting up for another go or enough is enough?
    The story telling of the script is simple genius. Thanks Stone Cold. Best wishes for 2015.

  4. Bob Speechley says

    Had the privilege of seeing it at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) last year. It incorporated an excellent interview with the Australian filmmaker. The acting in this movie is stunning and reminded me of my years working at the Faculty of Music at the U of M!!

    I have a cassette tape of Clark Terry from his visit to Melbourne in the 1970s. A great muso.

    Hoping Whiplash strikes a chord at the Academy.

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