Film Reviews

WHIPLASH

By • Nov 15th, 2014 •

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WHIPLASH offers Simmons a truly grand opportunity to be the vilest character of the year.

When we first see buff Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), New York City’s Shaffer Conservatory of Music’s feared jazz instructor, the door swings open and he appears just like THE EXORCIST’S Father Merrin. The band members all have their heads down in abject fear. They are terrified to even look at Fletcher. They do not even look at each other. There’s no comradeship here. It’s all about competition. Fletcher screams at each one of them using vile, and most often, homophobic diatribes. He can easily make a student play one note hundreds of times. If Fletcher is furious that a student is playing a note in the wrong tempo, he can throw a chair, or fling a cymbal, at their head. He has no problem with dumping a student for not knowing if he was in the wrong key.

Fletcher also has some very witty lines and narcissistic mannerisms. He’s a full-blown, original character.

So I immediately thought – Fletcher is a modern-day SS-Gruppenführer with his very own orchestra! He’s even all in black and has a shaved head – not that the SS favored a shaved head – but it does infer an obsession with not giving away any clues to one’s personality, as we all do with our choice in clothes, hairstyles, accessories, etc.

To bring my point home, in the extermination camps, the Nazis created orchestras using prisoner-musicians, forcing them to play while their fellow prisoners marched to the gas chambers. The suicide rate among musicians was higher than that of most other camp workers with the exception of the Sondercommandos – death details. Auschwitz/Birkenau alone featured six different orchestras, one of which contained no less than 100-120 musicians. Playing a musical instrument was one way to survive. These musicians literally played to stay alive, a day at a time because one never knew what mood an SS guard might be in – or he didn’t like the tempo being played.

The faculty, students and parents all tolerate Fletcher’s behavior because he creates stars.

Fletcher is creating art. God damn it!

Fletcher is always hunting the school’s other bands for raw talent he can shape. He’s not a mentor. Drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is plucked from his band by Fletcher as an alternate. Fletcher is a master manipulator and is brilliant at staging rivalries among the musicians. You don’t want to be the guy turning the pages for the drummer. For the other musicians, it’s about where your chair is. You want to be in the “first chair” not the “fourth chair”.

Fletcher gets his thrills by the initiation-hazing process. Was Andrew “rushing” or “dragging” a note? The other musicians have all been through this. They know to satisfy Fletcher may take Andrew hours.

One of my favorite quotes is from THE RULES OF THE GAME: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Fletcher’s justification for his obscene teaching style is repeated so often it is a student mantra: Jazz great Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at him and, faced with such humiliation, practiced until he became “the” Charlie Parker.

Andrew’s desire to please Fletcher has consequences. Andrew sees everyone around him as lacking focus and the willpower to succeed. Is his father’s (Paul Reiser) high school teaching salary paying for his living expenses? In Andrew’s eyes, he sees his father as a failure. He likes his new, first girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) but she doesn’t know what she wants to major in in college. He reasons he will be wasting time with Nicole, so he dumps her.

For Fletcher it is all about winning music competitions and he drives the musicians to absurd lengths that takes the story in many surprising directions.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, WHIPLASH offers Simmons a truly grand opportunity to be the vilest character of the year. And, more astonishing, the film was shot in 19 days. For Simmons’s performance, a mere 19 days shows just how skilled he is for crafting such a definitive character. Finally, Simmons’s long contribution to films will be noticed this award season. While the screenplay and director do not give Simmons one moment to show redemption, an actor working as long as Simmons knows how to sneak frailty into a performance. He does not fall into the trap. He plays Fletcher balls-out…so to speak. And this is exactly what makes WHIPLASH such a terrific film. Fletcher has no secret heart of Hollywood gold.

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