After watching the Oscars, I figured I’d watch all the apparently good movies I missed out on last year, partially some of the Oscar winners/nominations as well as stuff I was interested in anyway. On the list were “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, “Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”, “The Theory of Everything”, “Whiplash”, “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game”. I’ve now seen all of them except for the last one. I’ll get to it eventually.
So on to Whiplash! To say it outright: this was the most intense, most magnetic movie I’ve seen in a while. There is literally nothing I don’t like about it.
“Whiplash” is the story of a young Jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (played to perfection by Miles Teller who himself is great at the drums) with ambitions to become one of the greats. He attends a famous New York City music school and as luck would have it, one day Terrence Fletcher (11/10 performance by J.K. Simmons), the teacher of the school’s top Jazz band walks in on his practice session. Fletcher radiates an aura of authority. He’s like a mixture between the hard-ass drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket and Gandalf the Grey. Neyman impresses him sufficiently to get a chance to become part of the band and therefore be in the best position to reach his ambition.
Andrew is such a compelling character
I love stories where the protagonist is excellent at a particular thing, like Ender in “Ender’s Game” or Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. I’m automatically interested in such characters and Andrew is no different. I find his determination admirable and I can identify with him to some extent. I played in a band myself (the guitar) and I understand the struggle as well as the passion of mastering your instrument, though I never had the drive Andrew has. So in a way, I admire him because he shows something I wish I had. One of the effects of watching this movie is it inspired me to pick up my guitar and keep practicing. Of course, over the course of this movie, you’ll see very clearly the sacrifices you need to make to make your dream a reality, and it’s not always an easy decision to make.
The chemistry between student and teacher is perfect
So on to the student-teacher relationship. Some of the greatest movies have drawn a lot of their substance from this setup. “Karate Kid” comes to mind, or “Drunken Master” or “Kill Bill” (my favorite movie ever). Damn, I’ve named only martial arts movies. Student-teacher relationships are great because we’ve all been students and we’ve all had teachers. What “Whiplash” does so well though is it completely avoids any cliche you might have thought of. While Andrew has a huge respect for Fletcher, he also fears him. Fletcher’s single purpose is to push Andrew to the limit of his ability, to push on when others would’ve think they’d done enough. Greatness is paid for with pain, and Fletcher makes sure to inflict it on Andrew. There is a whirlwind of charged emotion in almost all of their scenes. The student hates his teacher, yet he is also driven so much by his goal that he’s willing to go through any shit his teacher will put him through. Well actually scratch that. Andrew is a realistic character and displays (understandable) impunity when he gets fed up with Fletcher’s mind games. There are some unbelievable scenes and developments that truly come out of left field.
The plot is original and quite unpredictable
Another joy of watching “Whiplash” for the first time is the plot twists. Usually, you’d expect it to go something like this: talented student finds his perfect teacher, they bond and student excels through hard ship. An external obstacle enters and some kind of crisis arises from that. Student must use all that he gained in his apprenticeship to overcome said obstacle, making his teacher proud. Often enough, you’d expect there to be a tournament of some kind to be the stage of the finale. Not so in “Whiplash”. Student and teacher at times seem to hate each others guts, the plot will seemingly run into a dead end only to defy expectations for the finale and you’ll realize that what the film was going for isn’t what you were anticipating, leaving you pleasantly surprised.
There is romance, but there really isn’t
Another thing you might expect is the student having a love interest and finally getting with him/her at the end. Not so in “Whiplash”. The love interest here is used as a device to demonstrate just how serious he is about his drumming. It’s at once disappointing (not in a bad way), feeling true to real life and effective in its purpose.
The music, oh the music
The soundtrack, as you might expect, is mainly comprised of Jazz music. I’m not really into that, or more accurately, I haven’t discovered this genre for myself yet. This might just be the catalyst though. What’s so cool about it the opportunity to get a look into the studio of a band. It feels intimate like a good documentary, showing you the side that people just don’t get to see in normal life. What you get on the stage, the performance, is a result of hard, hard work. It’s no walk in the park, that’s for sure. But the songs themselves are often upbeat and keep the movie’s mood anchored in a certain place.
Now, I don’t particularly care much about the Oscars as nobody else should either. Often great movies will get a snub because the academy feels they need to give another actor recognition because they snub them in a prior work. “Whiplash” won Best Supporting Actor with J.K. Simmons which I can support 100%. It’s probably the role of his lifetime. The film also won Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. No issues there. For me, “Whiplash” was the best film of 2014. It was just long enough, had so many facets that are great on their own, but as with all good works of art, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.