Faster, Drummer Boy! Kill! Kill!
First, a question: where the hell did Damien Chazelle come from? I just looked him up on IMDb and I see that he made his debut in 2009 with an obscure B&W 16mm film called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”, plus he’s credited as a writer on “The Last Exorcism Part II” and “Grand Piano”, none of which I’ve seen, though I’m certainly curious now.
What I do know for sure is that his sophomore effort as a writer-director, “Whiplash”, has got to be a breakthrough. I mean, the buzz surrounding it has been increasingly loud since it won the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at Sundance in January, and boy, is it ever deserving of all that hype.
Here’s an indie film telling a relatively simple story about Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young man who wants to become a great jazz drummer, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher who might be able to help him achieve that goal through unorthodox methods…
But that doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of watching “Whiplash”. A lot of it has to do with how frenzied, almost possessed Miles Teller is when he’s sitting behind the drums. Then there’s the hilariously and/or disturbingly mean, ruthless, cruel and arrogant J.K. Simmons, constantly throwing insults around, when he’s not throwing physical objects! He keeps pushing Andrew beyond his limits, whether it means playing mind games with him, pitting other musicians and him against each other, or basically putting him through what amounts to an army boot camp, leaving him in a puddle of tears, sweat and blood.
Chazelle’s screenplay is as tight and sharp as it gets, sketching in a love interest (Melissa Benoist) for Andrew and his relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), but mostly remaining focused on the teacher-student confrontations.
As great as Chazelle’s writing can be, it’s nothing compared to how brilliant his work behind the camera is. From his use of inserts and close-ups to his sense of rhythm and his direction of actors, Chazelle endlessly impresses, earning comparisons to such genius filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone. You have to see the rivetingly intense performance scenes to believe them – they’re action scenes as much as they are musical numbers! There are even “Rocky”-style training montages!
All the while, “Whiplash” is also thought-provoking, making us question our notions of ambition, motivation and determination. How far are you willing to go to be the best? Does the end justify the means? Wisely, the film leaves it up to us to decide…