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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Sundance film ‘Whiplash’ flops, lead actor scores

    Courtesy of Sundance Festival Photography
    Daniel McFadden
    Courtesy of Sundance Festival Photography

    The 30th Sundance Film Festival kicked off on Jan. 16 with the premiere of “Whiplash,” in which Miles Teller proves once again that he is a young actor to be reckoned with.
    Andrew (Teller) is an aspiring first-year music student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He’s a little shy, sheepishly stealing glances at the girl working the concession stand at the movie theater, and his family ranks him below his brothers, one of whom plays college football in Division III. He yearns to play for his school’s highest band, a jazz ensemble under the direction of the exaggeratedly imposing Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher notices Andrew’s skill and pulls him up out of the lower band into the big leagues.
    At first rehearsal, though, Fletcher promptly aims a chair at Andrew’s head for playing out of time. Thus, the premise of the rest of “Whiplash”: the destructive (or constructive, as the film would have you believe) and redundant push and pull between Andrew and Fletcher. As Fletcher “pushes” Andrew more and more to be a better drummer, Andrew sacrifices more and more in the pursuit of being the spiritual successor to Buddy Rich.
    The fatal flaw of the film revolves around Fletcher’s character. He commands a physically imposing presence, with a shaved head and short-sleeved black shirt that reveals his formidable biceps. Students quiver in his presence and come to attention when he snaps through the door. His methodology for achieving nothing short of perfection is to physically and emotionally abuse his pupils. A rather rotund trombone can’t decide whether he’s in tune or not, and Fletcher lets loose the deprecating fat insults before unceremoniously kicking the kid, embarrassed tears on his face, out of the band. Similar talk is lobbed at all the students.
    You could chalk it up to just good, old-fashioned locker room talk, or the vitriol of a drill sergeant. But then boundaries are crossed. Fletcher sets Andrew in his sights, using Andrew’s mother, who walked out on his family, as ammo. He repeatedly slaps Andrew across the face for being off time. It’s even implied that a previous student under Fletcher committed suicide due to the stress and anxiety brought on by the conductor’s regime. Fletcher’s unforgiving persona drives the film to narrative and thematic territories that are totally unbelievable.
    The film overshoots any kind of possible moral ambiguity by seemingly agreeing with Fletcher’s methods. The final sequence is of Andrew performing an epic drum solo in front of a crowded auditorium full of influential members of the music industry. With a final crash of the cymbal, the film has you believe Andrew’s made it. He’s going to go on to have a lucrative career as the new Buddy Rich in some fantastic group. He’s lost a girlfriend, but that doesn’t matter. Fletcher’s methods are draconian, and people get hurt — or worse — but that doesn’t matter as long as one student is successful.
    Up-and-comer Teller, fresh off of his strong performance in “The Spectacular Now,” is the highlight of this piece. Maybe due to the fact that his face is not as extraterrestrially handsome as other Hollywood leading men, he brings a natural honesty and “everyman” quality to his teenage roles. In “Whiplash,” this good nature becomes compromised as Andrew maniacally pursues success, sacrificing sweat, blood, tears, sleep and relationships. On a purely physical, technical note, he does all of the drumming in the film. This fact is extremely impressive upon viewing, especially when his face becomes a contorted mask of pain and concentration as the sticks dig into his fingers.
    Props to director Damien Chazelle for capturing some of the eccentricities of band life, like the ceremonial soaking of the leaves and the incessant emptying of spit.
    But despite some high notes, “Whiplash” is as bombastic and overly long as a drum solo that overstays its welcome. Ba dum tsh.

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