Sunday, 7 June 2015

Whiplash (2014)

"Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent" -- Miles Davis

This is one film I've really been looking forward to as I love jazz. I even play a little guitar, bass and drums, although extremely badly. Where the lead in this film could change time signatures during a song, I do the same, just accidentally and really badly. In other words I'm a shit drummer that can't keep time. There is one problem with Whiplash though - I can't watch him drumming as I can't understand the music that way - the timing, the swing - I get confused by the movement. I have to close my eyes which means I don't get to see the film. Argh!

The structure of Whiplash is very traditional; boy wants to be the best, boy gets discouraged, boy bounces back and becomes great. Really it's a jazz version of Alan Parker's Fame. I'm not saying that it's bad. In fact it's good. Very, very good. You'll find no experimental filming techniques, no improvised dialogue. What you do get is an examination of talent, the pressure that the need to excel brings and how it can either destroy or re-enforce depending on how great that "need" is.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a talented music conservatory drummer who wants to be the very best. J.K. Simmons plays his teacher and mentor; superficially a bully, but digging a little deeper we find a very hard taskmaster that expects the best and wants his musicians to reach their potential. Fletcher uses every trick in the book to coax every ounce of effort from his band members, including playing three drummers off against each other - speaking of which, I far prefer Andrew's drumming as it has way more swing, groove and a lot less attack (unfortunately this groove was lost in the later half of the film where they focused on the more, admittedly impressive, pyrotechnic aspects of drumming). It's not just ability that's important, it's drive and focus.

The gradual disassembly of Andrew, then rebuilding as a harder and stronger drummer is just brilliant. Just how much can he cope with and sacrifice to be the best? The pain, the abuse, the doubt. Who is really causing the pain? Fletcher or Andrew himself? Overshadowed at home by his cousin, a mediocre football player and continually told that music is a hobby and not career, only drives him harder.

Filmed half in shadow like all good jazz should be. The important thing about Whiplash is the contrast. The black against white. The silence against sound. The spotlight in the dark. This concept is highlighted by Andrew taking his girlfriend to see Rififi; a film famous for a "silent" heist scene. The silence is as important as the rolls, fills and paradiddles. It's the empty spaces that highlight content. As Miles said, "Don't play what's there, play what's not there".

The soundtrack, and by that I mean the incidental music, is top notch and is not overshadowed by the stonking jazz covers that they play.

The dialogue is very good with both Teller and Simmons delivering lines worthy of a hero in an action movie or Malcolm Tucker from TV's The Thick of It, including: "Unfortunately, this is not a Bette Midler concert, we will not be serving Cosmopolitans and Baked Alaska, so just play faster than you give fucking hand jobs, will you please?" and "Hey, fuck off Johnny Utah! Turn my pages bitch!".

A five star killer of a film. Pressure. Nice!

"Inhale resolve, Exhale ambition
Inhale all I need, Exhale all I want
Inhale love of life, Exhale fear of death
Inhale power, Exhale force"
-- Henry Rollins

Written whilst listening to Benny Goodman's legendary 1938 concert at the Carnegie Hall, which I recommend everyone listen to.

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