“There’s a stark difference between the words ‘prodigy’ and ‘genius.’ Prodigies can very quickly learn what other people have already figured out; geniuses discover that which no one has ever previously discovered. Prodigies learn; geniuses do.”
― John Green, An Abundance of Katherines
Have you ever watched battery acid drain out and spill over, boiling in its compound and all, with white froth coming out of the terminals as if the heads of Ash or David had been torn off?
To become is hard. Harder still, is to misbecome. It is even more arduous an endeavor to dig into the brain and try to undo the years of conditioning, the spread of an elemental conflict. It is all up for debate at Upgrade, 2018 & Ex Machina, 2014. It is nearly impossible to dismiss the most primal emotions in the wake of shame, humiliation, hurting, obsession, genius, and in some cases insanity.
It takes one in ten million to become, first by being unsuitable or downright nothing, even perhaps silly (as the saying goes) then by learning to dismiss shrieking pain in the groin caused by a major blow between the legs and eventually to shine in the face of everything wrathful and that, which is not Mr. Fletcher‘s tempo.
Music student becomes the unwitting prodigy of Gny. Sgt. Hartman himself, in this brilliant, no bullshit, no slip-up, unrestrained, foul-mouthed and a bleeding commentary on eccentricity leaning towards old-school psychosis and the way it can make or destroy aspirations and dreams or turn them into reality, however not before paying a price with everything you have, or thought you did. This film is a stock-still vehicle for actors J. K. Simmons (Justice League) and Miles Teller (Divergent, 2014).
This is a film on obsession to become someone, not necessarily Buddy Rich, but someone who cannot be reigned in, someone who will keep walking against all odds, perhaps even death itself, Whiplash thunders with clashing cymbals, plenty hard kicks on the gong-bass, crashing the set, double bassing, double time-swinging in one-third of a second, bleeding all over the orchestra, sweating like a pig to become or to completely vanish. There is no Middle Earth in this one; where the fundamentals of a master-teacher bond are at first obliterated, the most common determinant of the musical prodigy genre, along with the polite stages and the supposed succor of rehearsal studios and then those are replaced with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield, or a football locker room before the game.
J.K. Simmons, in an utterly compelling role, plays the part of Fletcher, the music instructor from hell, and the character actor from Spider-Man trilogy (2002–2007) as J. Jonah Jameson, who has finally found an equal in Teller, someone he can easily operate with at a certain dramaturgy level, a level where Andrew Neiman (a more simmering than a resilient, flexible performance) and Simmons’ profane, violating every line of the rule-book, and severing connections and unremitting and rigidly accurate can come together and blow up in a massive explosion of the senses, and the good thing is that it does happen. A level where the players cannot deviate from the standard. A place, which only a few can imagine, forget reach.
Simmons as Terence Fletcher is ruthless, charging, and ridiculously demanding (the discipline is such that a simple slap on the wrist would not do). He is a highly respected music professor at one of the most reputable and illustrious music academies in New York City. A music-instructor legend whose past students are now celebrity musicians, complete to the overdose.
No matter how disciplined one gets at his/her art, there is no stopping the dark abyss from devouring it all. An abyss of one’s own making. Sometimes I actually believe that people like these; immensely gifted, highly intelligent and prodigious are imprecated with sorrow, so deep that we can only get a glimpse of it in the art they create, at such young ages and are mostly dead before thirty. The superpotential, the power of knowing and creating comes at a very high cost; but then you already know that.
Speaking of an abyss, the depth of it is tested by two utterly stubborn idealists; one of whom is an ideology on his own. Simmons is shown humiliating his students:
Simmons: “Oh, so you’re the single tear type? And I’m a double fucking rainbow.”– Simmons and his sarcasm is some of the funniest and most insult hurling since Full Metal Jacket and R. Lee Ermey [1944 – 2018])
He throws furniture at them just like how ‘Jones threw a cymbal at Parker‘. He makes them cry out for their mothers, he is the reason the bunch under his tutelage always win the various Jazz competitions that determine access into the symbol of elite music schools across the country. Either that or record deals or banishment from one’s passion forever. Dreams are snatched away in this one, and being hopeless is terrible if not dangerous.
Simmons’ body language, his lean frame under the menacing t-shirt and his sudden outbursts of the violent variety and those blue piercing eyes make the character of Professor Fletcher one of the most intimidating, complex, and gut-wrenching in recent times. The fact that Andrew’s (Miles Teller) father is a teacher at a high-school and not at a university draws some parallels to Fletcher’s life and much to his contempt, which he spews out in so many different ways on to Andrew.
Miles Teller, although a familiar face, has not risen to this level of performance in all his previous body of work combined. No, I have not watched every single film that Teller has starred in, however the show he stirs up in this one has convinced me of my own belief.
Andrew has been playing the drums since he was barely higher than the mid-toms. He listens and practices to Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and other gods of percussion. He practices alone for hours until his hands bleed and then he practices some more; sometimes hitting the batter-head with his fist instead of the stick and tearing right through. We watch as he is pushed beyond his limits, we watch Teller grind his teeth, stomp his foot, push his burning tendons until they do not feel anymore, let the sweat and blood smear all over the Craviotto. Teller plays a few sets on his own, in the film, after having trained for two months – practicing for five hours, every day and taking further training to mime some of the more difficult Jazz configurations. It all comes out astoundingly ferocious and with the energy of Jake LaMotta taking his opponent down twenty seconds into the fight.
The young director, Damien Chazelle (a drummer himself) crafts this film with care. Editor Tom Cross arranges the rhythm of the scenes, intercutting musical instruments with the close-up of a sweaty, looking to be estimated, face. The camera pans from left to right in a fast sweep of the lens, and then back to Simmons, who has already picked up the furniture (whose flight the camera catches in a quick span of the room, again) to show he means business and they can fuck off and it wouldn’t mean shit to him. Chazelle misses a footing here a pedal-beat there but overall does a magnificent job of bringing this tale of blood and tears and passion and sweat (and NO Avedis Zildjian drum kits?) to the silver screen. He directs the film knowing that interrupting a live set is the biggest crime in professional music or otherwise. Chazelle does just that, it seems, with every single set the orchestra starts to play, in the classically lit, sound-proof, maroon studio.
Fletcher swings his right hand and holds it up in a fist, the trumpet sounds fade away, the shallow echo of the splash lingers for a while until Teller holds it from vibrating anymore. They start again to be interrupted again, ad infinitum.
This method creates a sense of foreboding every time the band takes cue from Fletcher only to stop a few beats later as the fist goes up (no pun intended). The motion to stop, to drop everything and start over; irritating at first becomes the catalyst for the viewers’ reaction, disdain, sigh of relief. We become attuned to almost all gigs being interrupted this way and when there is no interruption the heart rate rises, the characters are being paid close attention to (for another fucking unnoticeable boo-boo) and the tempo keeps rising until it cannot; and then some.
Whiplash is one of the finest films of recent years. It’s so fulfilling to write that, but seriously, the amount of vitality and exuberance shown here is nothing short of getting it, not just right but getting it perfect.
A film that will resonate with it’s charged performances and soulful direction for a long time to come.
I miss Bonzo. The nick for John Bonham means self-immolation.
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