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Drum Solo

‘Whiplash’ probes obsession and perfection, with a beat

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BEAT IT Oscar buzz surrounds J.K. Simmons' performance in 'Whiplash.'
  • BEAT IT Oscar buzz surrounds J.K. Simmons' performance in 'Whiplash.'

Damien Chazelle's much-lauded Whiplash is, at first, very forceful. Practicing at night in a thinly veiled version of Juilliard, the jazz drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller) is recruited by a dynamically sinister school orchestra leader, Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher is posed like a black-clad super villain—he doesn't feel as if he has to introduce himself. The teacher is nocturnal—more than this, he seems like the only teacher in the entire school. Over the months, Andrew's human qualities are stripped away through the savagery of this sadistic professor.

Simmons has one particularly fine scene: Fletcher's toxic simplicity goes complex in one quiet moment, right before Whiplash's series of endings. Over a quiet drink at a nightclub, we see the serene conviction underneath Fletcher's insane horror of compromise. He's more than just a pride-stung jazzman; his obsessions for purity harmonize with the obsessions of the great dictators. The moment of self-realization passes, and Whiplash goes on to say the vicious teachers are the ones that matter. It's a real Tiger Mom special.

In the performance scenes, Whiplash has kinetic excitement—the jazz instruments are studied and swooped over by the camera. Miles Teller does things that haven't been seen since John Cusack was young—the flushed face with its multiple brambly scars never gets tiresomely callow. Director Chazelle tries to make this unlikely tale plausible with photos of Buddy Rich on the walls to commemorate a famous secret tape of the jazz drummer unleashing a mighty temper tantrum against his band. You have to take Whiplash's tunnel vision for what it's worth—the idea that there's only one sort of perfection, only one school worth attending. Simmons has been better elsewhere, but this monomaniac movie is getting him Oscar buzz in the same way that Ben Kingsley got praise for the repetitious, bald-headed dick he played in Sexy Beast. This kind of acting is to acting what a drum solo is to music.

'Whiplash' opens Nov. 14 at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719

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