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With: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
MPAA Rating: R for strong language including some sexual references
Running Time: 106
Date: 10/10/2014

Whiplash (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bird Cage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How does a movie like Whiplash even get made in 2014? It's tightly focused on two characters, with little room for subplots or "best friends." Both of the characters are fairly unsympathetic, and neither has any kind of redemption. Neither of the actors belong to what you'd call the "A" list. Miles Teller is probably the best actor under 30 today, although when Hollywood gets ahold of him, he is usually given supporting parts in junk like Divergent. J.K. Simmons is one of our great character actors, probably put to best use as gruff newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, but rarely given a shot like this. Yet no matter how it was done, with Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle, himself an untested outcast, has put together one of the fall's most bracing and most thoroughly satisfying movies.

Teller stars as Andrew, a jazz drummer who attends one of the most prestigious music schools in New York. He wanders, displaced, through the hallways, unable or unwilling to speak much to others, slinks into his room, and listens to Buddy Rich CDs. His only concern is becoming a better drummer, a great drummer. His mom is gone, and he has a single dad (Paul Reiser); with whom he sometimes goes to the movies. Andrew asks out the pretty concession counter girl, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they date for a while, but he soon breaks it off for fear that she will interfere with his music.

One day, in the practice room, a teacher called Fletcher (Simmons) turns up to watch Andrew. There are no warm fuzzies. Fletcher speaks and Andrew stops. "Did I tell you to stop?" Fletcher barks. Andrew continues, and Fletcher responds, "Did I tell you to start again?" But nonetheless, Fletcher eventually invites Andrew to play in the school jazz band, a band that routinely wins competitions and awards. Inside the room, Fletcher is brutal, a monster. Right away, Fletcher stops a tune, announcing that someone is off the beat. He faces off with a fat kid, asking if he thinks he was off. The fat kid is too scared to answer, and guesses what he thinks Fletcher might like to hear; yes, he was off. The kid is dismissed from the band. He leaves. He was not off the beat, Fletcher announces, but he didn't know that, and that's just as bad.

Andrew works his way up to first drummer by practicing the impossibly fast double swing-time beat. He practices until blood flies from his drumsticks and dribbles all over the snare. He's always replacing bandages and dunking his hands in ice water. Andrew's victories and confrontations with Fletcher in the practice room grow more and more intense, leading up to a big one. On the day of a competition, Andrew is late thanks to a broken down bus and a series of other unfortunate incidents. I won't tell you what happens after this, but it all leads up to a furious, and unforgettable showdown, on stage, with the student and the master viciously upping the stakes in front of an audience. It's no cliché this time; this is pure passion, in both senses of that word.

One of the key scenes takes place around Andrew's dinner table, with an extended family invited. He watches as his cousins get praised for playing football and other things, and the grown-ups subtly disparage Andrew's father, who simply takes the abuse. Andrew himself is interrupted, and disparaged, but -- no doubt due to an angry reaction to his father's passivity -- he angrily insults everyone and storms out. He won't take it. He knows he's better than this. It's not a flattering scene, and Andrew can seem arrogant, but it feels truthful.

Another key theme is the story of Charlie Parker, who is perhaps the greatest jazz musician of all time, playing as a teen with Jo Jones. When Parker played a wrong note, Jones (apparently) hurled a cymbal at Parker's head (not what really happened, but it makes a good story for the movie). This act spurred Parker to more intense practice, and eventually led to greatness. When Fletcher tells the story, he suggests the alternate. If Parker had heard, "that's OK," he would not have tried so hard, and the world would be a poorer place.

Director Chazelle keeps things tightly focused on these two. The practice rooms at the school are windowless and underlit. It seems like an endless nighttime in there. Even the stage performances are kept claustrophobic by the effect of the stage lights (when you're on stage, you often can't actually see the audience or the auditorium because of the lights shining in your face). Rarely does Andrew venture out into the daylight, and in those scenes, he looks as if he's just marking time. He doesn't really belong. The limited space and lack of supporting characters conspire to bring the fates of Andrew and Fletcher together. These two are cut from the same cloth, and though it's explosive and practically dangerous, their encounter is as much destiny as it was between Parker and Jones.

Frankly, I would urge viewers to see this film, if for no other reason, than for the final scene. It's the kind of scene that involuntarily quickens your heart, makes your jaw fall open, and catches your breath. It's impossible to be aware of anything else in the world until this scene is over. It's totally absorbing, a fully immersive experience. For trivia hounds, Teller already knew how to play drums, but he took extra lessons to prepare for this movie, and apparently some of that blood is really his. This is the kind of preparation that earned Robert De Niro fame back in the 1970s; will anyone pay attention to Teller now?

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