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In Search Of The Perfect Tempo: Whiplash

Updated on April 4, 2015
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A music student gets an opportunity to play in his school's top band, but has to deal with a very demanding instructor in Whiplash. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a jazz drummer in his first year at a prestigious New York music academy. When he's not in school, he enjoys spending time at the movies with his father, Jim (Paul Reiser), and getting to know Nicole (Marissa Benoist), whom Andrew meets at the cinema's candy counter. During class one day, though, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who directs the school's concert band, barges into the room as he hears Andrew play. Fletcher, who'd already received a brief introduction to Andrew's musicianship, decides to audition the teen for the school's concert band. Andrew quickly learns that harsh criticism comes as quickly as an ear for talent from Fletcher, who puts his new drummer into competition with two other students.

Soon, Andrew works on honing his skills, but that starts to adversely affect his personal relationships. He starts dismissing the accomplishments of his cousins, then dismisses Nicole just as coldly. He then does all sorts of things to earn his keep with the studio band, knowing how much the commitment means to himself and the rest of the ensemble. However, Andrew starts to feel the pressure to succeed, and that pressure reaches the boiling point during a competition when Andew, following an another angry remark from Dr. Fletcher, punches the teacher in front of the band and the judges. Andrew gets expelled, but learns of another student of Fletcher's who committed suicide following his years with the teacher. That student's family sues, and Jim and counsel convince Andrew to testify against anonymously against Fletcher. In spite of the acrimony, Fletcher sees his former student some time later, and offers Andrew a spot in a band he leads.

Whiplash is an intense and riveting drama that marks the feature film debut of its writer and director, Damien Chazelle, who expanded a short film he made with Simmons into a feature length project (Teller did not act in the short, though). Dr. Fletcher, to be certain, is no Mr. Holland, but he has his way of getting through to Andrew. Fletcher's band has to understand what he demands - and he demands they play by his tempo. In one sequence, Fletcher keeps the rest of the band waiting for hours during rehearsal just to get the right tempo from his drummer. Fletcher, though, has a method that gets through to Andrew, even when this young man walks away from the drum kit. Chazelle shows the thin line between passion and obsession with music, and presents two men who sometimes lose sight of the difference. The film's music, which often contains pieces that highlight drums, helps to set the tense mood.

The performances of both Teller and Simmons might get both of these actors Oscar recognition. Simmons's Dr. Fletcher is the alpha male of his band, willing to weed out any weak links, such as the trombone player who admits to playing flat following a grilling by the professor. Fletcher is not one to show sorrow, as he angrily lets Andrew know when the teen comes to his office at an inopportune moment. His methods have a purpose, even if the ultimate purpose isn't obvious to a pupil. Teller also does well as the prodigy who learns his hard work to get to the music school means even harder work once he gets there. He also learns responsibility about other things, such as keeping track of his music, doing anything it takes to be punctual, and trying to stay sane through all the demands put upon him - and still emerge as the man he wants to be. These two, though, come to know one another instinctively.

Whiplash tells the tale of a music professor who pushes a pupil to set the highest expectations for himself, and to not let anyone or anything impede a goal of consistent excellence. Many learn to play a musical instrument, but only a few will find themselves on stage in front of audiences, on in demand in the recording studio, with people willing to pay to hear them perform. Whiplash shows the blood, sweat, toil, and tears needed for Andrew to reach a new understanding of the music he wishes to perform for a living. He has to learn what Fletcher believes - it's not good enough to merely do a good job.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Whiplash four stars. A film with a precision beat.

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