WHIPLASH – No Cowbells

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WHIPLASH is a drama about music that -feels- like an action movie. This impressive film is so intense you’ll be wiping away sweat.

MILES TELLER delivers an amazing performance – relying on much more than just his impressive drumming capabilities. I think he deserved just as much recognition and attention as his co-star. JK SIMMONS has a complex character who ended up surprising me by the end – a couple of times.

Essentially, we have what feels like a sports movie with a hard-ass coach pushing his athlete to the limits. He forces his pupil to the edge, then drives a hard fist in his back, pushing him -over- the edge. These complex characters are fully explored, often diverting our expectations and even pulling the rug out from under us.

This Oscar nominated BEST PICTURE rarely lets up, barging ahead full speed, gaining momentum until it’s truly epic finale. The jarring editing creates amazing tension and incredible excitement. No only does this grab your attention it also adds variety to the rhythmical sections cut to the music.

I’d like to touch on Teller’s character for a second. His Dad (PAUL REISER) is a pushover. When someone bumps into his father at the movies, his dad apologizes. He avoids confrontation. Like father like son, right. Well, almost. Teller’s character arcs from a guy who takes abuse, to a man nearly driven to insanity by his FULL METAL JACKET-like instructor, to a drummer driven by the beat of his own heart.

There were moments where I wondered if Teller hated himself so much he somehow felt he deserved the abuse from Simmons. He also puts himself through so much physical pain. It’s almost sadistic, like 50 SHADE OF DRUMMING or something.

Just when you think you have Simmons figured out his motivations shift. We begin to care for the guy. We see his human side. Only to be whacked by one heckuva twist for the final sequence. I love how Teller reacts. And like any good underdog story, you know where it’s ultimately headed. However, this sort of predictability does not injure the film one bit. In fact, I was cheering out loud by the end.

<<INCOMING SPOILERS>>

I want to explore the final sequence with a bit more depth. SPOILER WARNING.

First, some context… Teller can’t be stopped, he’s an unstoppable force who confronts an immovable object. Earlier in the film, he needs to rush back and find his music sheet. It’s imperative to his success. He will be kicked out of the program if he fails. The entire sequence is so intense because at this point we are so connected to our protagonist. We care for Teller. We want him to succeed. And that’s when he’s crashed into by another vehicle.

His car is totaled. His arm might be broken. He’s bleeding. But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t care about his car. Or his injuries. Simmons has driven him to the brink of insanity. He must get back in time for the performance or his pursuit of art is over. WHIPLASH was a metaphor earlier (regarding Simmons teaching tactics), but now it becomes quite literal. Compelling stuff.
Teller is forced out of the program. He decides to testify anonymously for a case against Simmons – ending HIS tenure as conductor / teacher / slave driver. An unlikely chance reunion at a bar leads to Simmons revealing his troubles. He becomes human. These moments are all carefully crafted setting up for a turbulent finale.

Fast forward.. Teller is invited to play a super important gig with Simmons as conductor. This is the last straw. Teller’s last chance at success. If he screws up now, he won’t get another chance, his career as a musician will end. His father (Reiser) shows up for the performance, finally demonstrating to us that he DOES care about his son’s creativity and expression. That’s why it’s so heart-breaking when Simmons gets revenge. He knew Teller ratted on him. He just played dumb at that bar. Now he switches up the song the troupe is about to perform. And once again, Teller is without a music sheet. He’s screwed. And Simmons chews it up in a moment of pure delicious villainy – as if to say, now young buck, YOUR career is over. Teller ends up looking like a bumbling unprepared amateur drummer. And it’s all Simmons’ fault.

Reiser witnesses his son crumble on stage, assuming it was the pressure that got to him. Teller retreats off stage. He is momentarily broken. But his idol wouldn’t give up. And neither will he. He storms back on stage for the most epic finale of any of the Oscar contenders. Teller takes his life into his own callused hands. He will have the last word against Simmons.

Teller sits behind the skins and commands the stage – and his Dad is there to see it. So touching. Teller launches into a thunderous performance of the titular song “WHIPLASH”. It is electric. A truly galvanized moment.

For me, Teller conducted the group. I’m not familiar with the song, so in my experience, he began to do his own version. A remix if you will. He freestyles for a few bars, and then plays some filler for the rest of his musicians to freestyle over. A pure expression of the art for all involved.

The brilliance of Simmons’ performance here is the arc. At first, he is pissed off, this kid is taking over. Then he seems to appreciate Teller, as if all his hard-ass aggressive teaching has -finally- paid off with one of his students. He sits back and enjoys the moment, watching his band play. The arc continues as Simmons conveys some humanity, joining in and conducting the rest of the amazing performance.

<<END SPOILERS>>

I’m not sure if this is what actually happened, but that’s the beauty of cinema – it’s your own interpretation. Every viewer can theoretically get their own version of the movie. It’s a rare and beautiful occurrence.
The finale, combined with the energetic pacing, stylish editing, and stirring emotional performances make this film deserving of all the Award attention it received.
One of the BEST MOVIES of the year, WHIPLASH explores dark territory with complicated characters, slowly revealing the mysterious motivations lurking behind every artist.

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What do you think?

Was WHIPLASH over-rated? Or was it one of your favourite films of the year?

 

Do you think MILES TELLER was snubbed by the Academy?

Did JK SIMMONS push his pupil too far? Or just far enough?

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CLICK the image and read my review for BEYOND THE LIGHTS – Oscar nominated for Song – 81% FRESH on the TOMATO meter

What are your favourite music movies about a struggling artist? Have you seen the recently released BEYOND THE LIGHTS yet? It’s deserving of your attention. Don’t let this movie SLIP THROUGH the cracks…

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