‘I’ ON CULTURE
Some movies come to us with big publicity campaigns, and others sneak in and sometimes are gone before they are appreciated. Whiplash came out in October and was generally ignored until movie people went nuts over how good it is. It was nominated for Best Picture and deserves the nomination. It is tough, it is taut, and you walk out feeling exhilarated.
There have been many movies made about talented young people and their relationships with their teachers. But few of us have ever witnessed the extreme tension between a student and a sociopathic teacher that is the center of this picture.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer at the most prestigious music school in New York. Driven by fear of accepting mediocrity as his teacher father (Paul Reiser) has, haunted by the desertion of his mother, he yearns for greatness by constantly practicing, hoping to be noticed by the school’s top jazz teacher. The teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) comes into his practice room, praises him and orders him to the practice room for his band, the top one in the school, at 6 the next morning. Andrew shows up, but no one else does until 9 a.m.
Andrew is praised a lot at the start, made part of the “core band,” the regulars. At that point, Fletcher, who has already demonstrated that he can be an uncaring monster, begins a pattern of abuse. He curses, he throws chairs. He micromanages the beat for individual measures. He brings in other drummers to replace Andrew, forcing him to work until his hands bleed. Watching Andrew push his hand into bowls of ice cubes to stop bleeding and swelling was brutal.
Andrew’s budding relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoit), a student at Fordham University, suffers and he very awkwardly drops her, telling her that any relationship would sour because of his drive to please the teacher. And, aside from her, he has no friends. He does not even get along with most of his own family, all of whom, excepting his father, are high achievers.
Eventually, he faces disaster at a major concert when his bus has a flat tire and he winds up in an accident. His life crashes around him. Then, he gets a second chance from the teacher, but it turns out nothing is quite like it seems.
As an old teacher, I focused on the major philosophical question posed by Fletcher: Is it his role to create well-adjusted mediocrities or push beyond endurance to create greatness? Several times there are references to an incident where jazz drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head, almost decapitating him, which led to Parker’s working feverishly for a year and led to his proving himself as a music genius. That is the structural framework in essence for the film.
Ironically, the truth is that Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet and the saxophonist was humiliated, not endangered. Also, Jones was upset at Parker’s style of playing, one different from most of the old-time jazz greats, rather than concerned about whether he had talent. And despite the film, it is not just practice that makes a musician great; talent also play a role.
But the movie is brilliant. Teller, who is a drummer, is very good both in the musical parts and the acting. But J.K. Skinner steals the movie. He is probably best known for his Farmers Insurance Group commercials rather than his acting in many films and TV shows, but that will change. He has already won a raft of awards for acting and is considered the odds-on favorite for the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. He deserves it.
He is not a stereotype despite almost certainly being a sociopath. He rages, he yells, he cajoles. But he also has streaks of whimsy. He moves the audience along as much as he does the drummer and other musicians. Always dressed in black, very physical, he dominated everything else in the picture. And when he is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. He is constantly in close-up; we can see every emotion. It is a superb performance.
You may have trouble seeing the movie because its run in theaters was so short. But look around for it on the streaming services or on demand. This is a movie worth seeing; one of the best of the past year.