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Whiplash

Released 2014. Director: Damien Chazelle

IF TERENCE FLETCHER SAW THIS MOVIE, HE'D PROBABLY THINK writer-director Damien Chazelle had some talent in filmmaking but nevertheless needed plenty of rigorous and torturous regiment to go through to make him the next Orson Welles.

Fletcher does not play the same tune as those we know and love in generations of movies with inspirational mentors. Quite the complete opposite, Fletcher is the instructor from the deepest level of hell and Whiplash is not Dead Poets Society. His gruelling method at “the best music school in the country”, according to his star student, is to drive his students consistently beyond what is clearly accepted by any normal standards. Some would say it’s physical and mental abuse and it’d be hard to argue otherwise.

Fletcher runs his music studio like a drill sergeant in his own military camp. His students are the cream of the crop yet they are too terrified of being replaced to feel the joy in their performance. Nineteen-year-old rookie Andrew experiences first-hand, through blood, sweat and tears, the price of his education.

Whiplash is fascinating in almost a sadistic way, as we see raw talent honed, pushed to the limits and crushed, set to a rousing jazz soundtrack. The musical performances are compelling, even though they are quite often interrupted by Fletcher to weed out an out-of-tune player or to pit one student against another in hours-long competition to play exactly the way he insists.

J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher like a steel rod, unbending, uncompromising, and absolutely harsh. Bald, wiry, always clothed in black, his fiercely piercing eyes and a mouth that screams personal insults never take a rest except in one brief scene when he appears to shed a tear over the death of a former student. But is it just for show, part of his psychological manipulation? The controlling perfectionist in Fletcher loathes mediocrity, as he summarises his teaching philosophy with a disdain for “good job”, apparently the two most harmful words in the English language.

The youthful optimism Miles Teller brings to Andrew is like a flickering flame in a storm. Pale and weedy against the tormenter with the brute might to make or break his career, Andrew’s dream derails in a humiliating public performance, enough to snuff what remains of his aspiration.

How much push do talented students need to become great artists? Whiplash is a debate on the line between nurturing and bullying. Fletcher clearly identifies the promise and potential in Andrew as a musician and exploits his vulnerability to mould the young man into his idea of excellence.

Maybe Fletcher is exactly the kind of person Andrew needs to lift him into the spotlight. Andrew’s electrifying redemption in the final showdown leaves “good job” for dead, a 5-minute drum solo for the ages, a cinematic catharsis taking Whiplash to almost an operatic height. The fury of music and emotion builds to a spectacular climax that makes you want to stand up and applaud.


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