Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whiplash (2014) – Review

Review: Whiplash is a great character drama that also asks interesting social questions about the cost of achieving greatness.

The film is about Andrew Neyman, a young man who aspires to be a master jazz drummer, and his teacher Terence Fletcher, a man who pushes his students past what is reasonable in the hopes of them finding greatness. Neyman is enrolled in a top music school with the hopes of being asked to join Fletcher’s school band. When it finally happens, Neyman realizes that is going to be very hard work; and not only that, he will have to succeed in spite of Fletcher’s extreme verbal and psychological abuse.

Whiplash is a crowd pleaser, built on excellent performances from its two main stars. Writer-director Damien Chazelle based the film on his own experience as a young jazz musician, but the film pushes things quite a bit farther.

It is clear that Chazelle loves jazz music, as it plays a central role in the film. The music is really the soul of the piece. Jazz is one of the more elegant and creative forms of music; and yet, it is now more of a fringe style in terms of its popular appeal. The film is not going to change that, but it does seem to breathe new life into the genre – at least for the non-initiated. The music has so much life and power – a lot of that, however, does go hand-in-hand with the audience being behind Neyman and wanting him to succeed. Whiplash and the HBO drama Treme are the only two recent pieces I can think of to really do the genre justice.

 Caring about Neyman is a key factor to Whiplash working. When he is first presented, he seems like an average kid. He has a good relationship with his dad, but is from a broken home. He has a crush on a cute girl named Nicole. And, he wants to be a jazz drummer – a really great one. He is willing to work incredibly hard to realize his dream, as the audience is introduced to him frantically practicing his drumming. This also gets the attention of his school’s top jazz teacher, Fletcher. Neyman has no idea what he will actually have to do to succeed under Fletcher, who is absolutely awful to him, abusing him severely (as well as everyone else – the whole class is terrified of him). Neyman’s treatment at the hands of Fletcher seems to endear him to the audience even more. We are horrified by Fletcher’s treatment of Neyman; thus, we sympathize with Neyman and hate Fletcher.

But this is when Chazelle does something every interesting with the character of Neyman. He seems like a good kid when we first meet him, but as he takes all this abuse from Fletcher he starts to change, becoming a bit of an asshole himself. He is rude to his family, dismissive of his father (maybe even looking down on him as a failure – which is also echoes of how Fletcher describes Neyman’s father), and breaks up with Nicole (who he has begun dating) because he is going to be great and she will only hold him back. Neyman is burning bridges because he thinks Fletcher and Fletcher’s attitude are key components to his success as a drummer. He needs to adopt the same persona, while also working incredibly hard, to be great, as Fletcher is clearly great in his eyes. Fletcher to some extent is like a god figure, ruthlessly smiling or smiting on those deserving – only through him, however, can salvation be reached.

Chazelle does another very interesting thing with the story. Neyman is pushed so far that he cracks and attacks Fletcher, ending with him being expelled from school and giving up drumming. Some time passes when Neyman sees Fletcher performing at a local bar. He goes in to watch and Fletcher see him. Fletcher too has be let go by the school for mistreating students. He asks Neyman if he would be interested in joining his new band made up of professional musicians to perform at the upcoming Jazz Festival. Neyman agrees, which seems insane, but he clearly still holds Fletcher in high regard. Neyman practices for the show and even gives Nicole a call to invite her, but she has a boyfriend now. He feels remorse about missing his chance with her. It is a brief reminder of what Fletcher took from him (or in some way forced him to give up), but he still has this great opportunity to play in front of jazz music’s elite. The day comes and to Neyman’s devastation he realizes that he has been set up by Fletcher to fail. He has learned and practiced the wrong songs. Neyman has a moment in which he contemplates giving up, but instead comes back and upstages Fletcher and in fact reveals himself as a brilliant drummer, not only winning over the band but also Fletcher too.

What is really interesting about this is the question it asks: would Neyman have become the drummer he is in the end without Fletcher pushing him as hard as he did? The film seems to argue no, echoed in the story that Fletcher tells about a famous jazz musician who had a symbol thrown at his head because he played poorly only to come back later as a master. This story mirror’s Neyman’s own. Do the ends justify the means? Without the verbal and psychological abuse driving Neyman to get better and better – to practice and practice until his hands bleed – he would not be the master he is in the end. Yet, we hate Fletcher. His treatment of Neyman is despicable, unforgivable and unacceptable; but without it, Neyman would not be the same drummer. It is a difficult quandary.

The film does not really take a position of whether Fletcher is right or wrong. The audience can let themselves off the hook by claiming the Neyman persevered in spite of Fletcher’s awful treatment, but that is not true. He becomes the musician he is because Fletcher pushed him so hard. Chazelle wants to challenge his audience to ask themselves if they believe that the ends justify the means. It is a difficult question. Especially, when Chazelle presents the case of another musician that Fletcher taught. He pushed him just as hard as Neyman and he became a great musician as well, but he could not deal with the psychological abuse and depression. He ultimately took his own life. We want to applaud Neyman for his achievement, but that goes hand-in-hand with applauding Fletcher’s tactics, which seems impossible because we just spent the entire film hating everything about him.

This is probably what makes Whiplash so compelling. Yes, the performances are very good and the music is presented in such a way that for about two hours we are all jazz fans, but it is this big question that Chazelle asks that sticks with us long after the film concludes.

The juxtaposition between Fletcher and Neyman’s father Jim is also interesting. Jim is a very loving and supportive father who looks out for his son and wants to protect him. But if Neyman had gone with his father after Fletcher had set him up and embraced him, Neyman would have never achieved his dream. Jim is the antithesis of Fletcher in almost every way. Jim is a good man and Fletcher is not; yet, Jim is presented as a failure and Fletcher a success. With his father, Neyman would have failed but with Fletcher he becomes something extraordinary. Here again, Chazelle creates an interesting wrinkle to how we as a society think about the way people should behave, and the possible consequences of that behavior.

Whiplash does everything very well when it comes to telling its story, especially regarding its main characters; however, Chazelle is almost completely focused on Neyman and Fletcher, everything else is just sort of background. Neyman’s father Jim is hardly developed (they watch movies together and Jim cares about his son). The same is true of Nicole, who is basically introduced solely as something Neyman must give up to succeed under Fletcher, but their relationship nor her character are developed so it does not feel like a loss for the audience. We just think that Neyman is acting like a bastard, modeling the behavior of his teacher. It is more about the change in Neyman than the loss of the relationship (which means nothing to us). It is not until later that we are told that losing Nicole actually means something to Neyman, but it is too later for the audience to really care. The cost of Neyman wanting to be a great musician is undercut by the lack of Nicole’s character development or the development of the relationship. There are also plot details that are whisked over, which do not matter in the big picture of the narrative but still nag on the overly observant, possibly taking some viewers out of the story. For example, near Neyman’s breakdown he is in a rush to make it to a show. He is running late and is afraid he will lose his spot in the band (one that he worked so hard for). He gets in a car accident, because he is in too much of a hurry. It is a pretty bad crash, but Neyman crawls out of his car and can still walk. He flees the scene to try and make it to the show. There are no consequences to this scene or this choice. That is completely unrealistic. There are Neyman and Fletcher, everything else in the film is treated as background noise, only brought to the front when it is convenient for the plot or characters. The problem is that as a result these moments and/or characters do not mean much when suddenly in focus.

Fletcher, to some extent, is also merely a Walt Disney or comic-book villain. He is played so big and so evil because Chazelle wants the audience to hate him. The whole film relies on this. Chazelle still tries to humanize him, however, showing him get choked up when he talks about the musician he taught that died and showing him act like a normal nice guy when he sees a friend of his and the man’s young daughter. These moments fall flat and add nothing. He is really nothing more than a villain who we hate. That said, however, it is interesting in the final few moments that there seems to be a real bond, an absolute love of the music and what Neyman and Fletcher can accomplish together, that takes over, as if these two have put the past behind them and have moved forward as friends with equal respect for each other’s talent. We were shown for the whole film how awful this man is, but he is seemingly forgiven. There is a bit of a disconnection, especially in terms of him being presented as a storybook villain of sorts (which usually means irredeemable).

The film, which plays a bit like a fantasy piece in many ways, despite it taking place in the real world, suddenly wants to change tones and genres. Neyman’s struggle to become the best while Fletcher tortures him is presented in such an extreme way that it does feel heightened, like it is a nightmare. Yet, suddenly, the end wants to be happy with Neyman and Fletcher reconciling. The audience is left applauding, but also uneasy. If this were a fantasy, Neyman would have succeeded and Fletcher would have been exposed as the evil man that he is, but instead the film decides to return to reality where nothing is black and white, but grey. No one is really completely good or evil. This is an interesting choice by Chazelle, but it also leaves the film feeling incomplete in some way. Where is Fletcher’s comeuppance?

Whiplash, as said above, is a crowd please. The third act will have you cheering. The performances are also top-notch. What is probably its best attribute, however, is that it asks difficult questions. Now, it is up to the viewer to engage with these questions or just happily applaud Neyman in the end without questioning the cost.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Damien Chazelle has directed a short (which this is a feature length remake of) and a micro budget feature, but this film is his breakthrough as a director – winning both the dramatic Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The same can be said of his ability as a writer. He is an exciting young talent who already has some upcoming projects penciled in. I look forward to seeing his next film, the musical drama La La Land.

Composer Justin Hurwitz composes a good score, supporting the dramatic moments well. The soundtrack of jazz classics that are performed by the band in the film take center stage musically and do overshadow Hurwitz’s score, but he still delivers good work that is essential to the overall dramatic resonance of the film. Sharone Meir’s cinematographer is also very good, especially in the third act. Chazelle uses a lot of extreme close ups to detail the pain and determination on Neyman’s face, as well as his isolation. Meir’s photography captures these moments wonderfully. Melanie Jones’s production design grounds the film in reality. Everything looks as it should – more so than most films. It looks as if the film was made on location in real dorms rooms, broken down apartments, music practice rooms, and so on.

The film features strong performances, but really only has two characters. Everyone else are relegated to the background without much to do or development of any kind. Paul Reiser plays Neyman’s dad Jim. He comes across as caring and loving towards his son, but he is mostly used as a narrative devise and not a character. The same is true of Melissa Benoist’s Nicole. All she is really asked to do is to make us understand why Neyman might like her, and she does that well. J.K. Simmons gets the fun role of playing Terence Fletcher and he goes big with it, which works perfectly. He is not an amazingly well developed character either, but Simmons makes him feel real even while playing him like a bit like a comic-book villain, which is a testament to his great talent as a character actor. Miles Teller is fantastic in the film as Andrew Neyman. Teller puts everything he is into the role, making Neyman’s pain his own (he also really is playing the drums). It is one of the better performances of the year (which has a lot of good work, especially among leading men).

Summary & score: Great performances, great music, a wonderful third act, and big social questions, Whiplash is a very good drama. 8/10

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