Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whiplash

Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons
US © 2013 Whiplash, Inc. Year of release: 2014. P: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak. D+SC: Damien Chazelle. DP: Sharon Meir. PD: Melanie Paizis-Jones. M: Justin Hurwitz. S: Thomas Curley. ED: Tom Cross. C: Miles Teller (Andrew Neyman), J. K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Paul Reiser (dad), Austin Stowell, Nate Lang. 105 min
    DCP from Sony Releasing International, to be released by Sony Pictures Finland.
    Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF) opening gala.
    2K presentation at Bio Rex, Helsinki, 18 Sep 2014

Peter Debruge (Variety) quoted in the HIFF catalogue: "Miles Teller drums his heart out—and then some—in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s stellar career-starter, Whiplash, which demolishes the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena. Chazelle proves an exceptional builder of scenes, crafting loaded, need-to-succeed moments that grab our attention and hold it tight, thanks largely to co-star J. K. Simmons as the school’s most intimidating instructor (…)."

"Whiplash is not about drumming, after all, but rather just how far someone will go to be the best. Teller’s 19-year-old Andrew descends from a long line of mediocrity, but he is determined to add his name to the short list of widely known jazz greats. Andrew is certainly dedicated enough, practicing until his fingers bleed on more than one occasion."

"(…) Fletcher is intimidating in front of the studio band, where he lets fly torrents of emasculating and openly homophobic invective directed against any and all who disappoint. The character is capricious and cruel, making him a volatile force in Andrew’s life, even in scenes where the conductor isn’t physically present. Peter Debruge, Variety" (HIFF catalogue)

AA: A powerful jazz film, one of the most powerful ever made. But if jazz has always often evoked notions of freedom, improvisation, and a relaxed attitude to life, the activity seen in Whiplash comes closer to a military drill exercise such as depicted by Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket.

There is the demonic taskmaster, the bandleader-teacher Terence Fletcher, interpreted with sadistic glee by J. K. Simmons.

There is the 19-year old drummer genius Andrew Neyman (his model: Buddy Rich) played with a mix of vulnerability and perseverance by Miles Teller. Unfortunately, Andrew is influenced by Fletcher also in his private life, breaking up his relationship with Nicole and insulting his family imperiously. There is no room for love in a life dedicated to his kind of art.

Damien Chazelle has written a gripping screenplay, and he directs it like a thriller. Whiplash has been compared with Black Swan, and common to both is that they chart the territory where merciless drill can lead to mental breakdown. But there is no final descent into madness in Whiplash, and no surreal nightmare visions.

Whiplash also brings to mind the "putting on the show" tradition of film musicals from Forty-Second Street to All That Jazz. It dramatizes the extremely hard work behind the smooth performance.

Here the rookie survives the final sadistic trap of the bandleader and proceeds to a glorious proof of what he can.

Members of the audience were laughing at the cruel insults which are the main educational method of J. K. Simmons. The insults are worse than the ones I remember from my army days. They are monstrously personal and deeply humiliating.

J. K. Simmons claims that that is how a Charlie Parker is born - after an insulting remark that he could not ignore Parker reinvented himself after a year of merciless practice. In this movie the insulting method seems to work.

The fate of jazz is a theme of the film. Although Whiplash is a success story on the surface, more fundamentally it is a tragedy of a brutalization of the spirit.

Visual quality: no problem with the digital projection. The movie has been conceived so that there is no imagery difficult for digital.
BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK

SOUNDTRACK LISTING FROM IMDB:

Overture  Written by Justin Hurwitz
[Courtesy of 5AM Music Ltd]

When I Wake  Written by Justin Hurwitz
Produced by Nicholas Britell
[Courtesy of 5AM Music Ltd]

Casey's Song  Written by Justin Hurwitz
[Courtesy of 5AM Music Ltd]

Fletcher's Song in Club  Written by Justin Hurwitz
Produced by Nicholas Britell
[Courtesy of 5AM Music Ltd]

No Two Words  Written by Justin Hurwitz
Produced by Nicholas Britell
[Courtesy of Lake George Entertainment LLC and Justin Hurwitz]

Whiplash  Written by Hank Levy
[Courtesy of Hank Levy Jazz LLC
Under exclusive license from Hank Levy Jazz LLC and Ellis Music Enterprises]

Caravan  Written by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington
[Exclusive Print Rights for EMI Mills Music, Inc.
Controlled and Administered by Alfred Music
All Rights for Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

Keep Me Waiting  Written by Dana Williams
Produced by Maxwell Drummey and Dan Stringer

Reaction  Written by Nicholas Britell
Produced by Nicholas Britell
Courtesy of Lake George Entertainment LLC

The New Yorker
October 13, 2014
Getting Jazz Right in the Movies
By Richard Brody   

Movies about musicians offer musical approximations that usually satisfy in inverse proportion to a viewer’s devotion to the actual music behind the story. Few, if any, fictionalized musicians are played onscreen by real-life musicians of their calibre. (Dexter Gordon, in “’Round Midnight,” is perhaps the best; Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd, in “The Connection,” don’t do as much acting, but their music is brilliant.) Most good music in movies is played by musicians playing themselves, whether it’s Little Richard in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton in “A Song Is Born,” the Rolling Stones in “Sympathy for the Devil,” or Artur Rubinstein in “Carnegie Hall.” Yet I’m not bothered by musical approximations and allusions in dramas, as long as the drama itself has the spirit of music. The mediocre jazz in Damien Chazelle’s new film, “Whiplash,” the story (set in the present day) of a young drummer (Miles Teller) under the brutal tutelage of a conservatory professor (J. K. Simmons), isn’t itself a problem. The problem is with the underlying idea. The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.

Teller is a terrific actor, and he does a creditable job of playing the protagonist, Andrew Neiman, who’s nineteen and idolizes Buddy Rich. (Buddy Rich? A loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration. As I heard his name in the film, I spoke it in my head as dubiously as Leonardo DiCaprio says “Benihana” in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”) Teller is a student at New York’s fictional Shaffer Conservatory, where he catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), the authoritarian leader of the school’s concert band and an ostensible career maker. The core of the movie is the emotional and physical brutality that Fletcher metes out to Andrew, in the interest (he claims) of driving him out of self-satisfaction and into hard work. Fletcher levels an ethnic slur at Andrew, who’s Jewish; he insults his father, smacks him in the face repeatedly to teach him rhythm, hazes him with petty rules that are meant to teach military-style obedience rather than musical intelligence.

Fletcher justifies his behavior with repeated reference to a long-repeated anecdote about Charlie Parker, who, while still an unknown youth, was playing a solo at a jam session with professionals—one of whom was the great drummer Jo Jones, of the Count Basie Orchestra, more or less the inventor of classic jazz drumming, and even of the four-four glide that persists as the music’s essential pulse. In Fletcher’s telling, Parker played so badly that Jones threw a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him. After that humiliation and intimidation, Parker went home and practiced so long and so hard that he came back a year later and made history with his solo.

Here’s the real story, as related in Stanley Crouch’s recent biography of Parker, “Kansas City Lightning.” Crouch spoke with the bassist Gene Ramey, who was there. It happened in 1936, and Parker (whose nickname was Bird) was sixteen:

    “Bird had gotten up there and got his meter turned around,” Ramey remembered. “When they got to the end of the thirty-two-bar chorus, he was in the second bar on that next chorus. Somehow or other he got ahead of himself or something. He had the right meter. He was with the groove all right, but he was probably anxious to make it. Anyway, he couldn’t get off. Jo Jones hit the bell corners—ding. Bird kept playing. Ding. Ding. Everybody was looking, and people were starting to say, ‘Get this cat off of here.’ Ding! So finally, finally, Jo Jones pulled off the cymbal and said ‘DING’ on the floor. Some would call it a crash, and they were right, a DING trying to pass itself as under a crash. Bird jumped, you know, and it startled him and he eased out of the solo. Everybody was screaming and laughing. The whole place.

Not attempted murder but rather musical snark; a humiliation but not an oppression. (By the way, Crouch himself has been a professional musician, an excellent drummer in the free-jazz manner—I had the pleasure of seeing him perform around 1976. His book joins an extraordinary depth of research and a profound understanding of the inner life of the music with a vivid depiction of life in Kansas City in the nineteen-thirties.)

Crouch adds that, at around this same time, Parker “had a breakthrough,” a musical epiphany that resulted from listening to the solos of the Kansas City-based tenor saxophonist Lester Young (who, later in 1936, joined Basie’s band). Parker found a steady gig with a local band, with whom he performed onstage for many hours every night. Crouch writes that Parker also got serious about music, studying harmony at the piano and spending lots of time listening to other musicians on the radio, including the trumpeter Roy Eldridge and the alto saxophonist Buster Smith. And, yes, Parker did play a historic solo a year later. He showed up at another jam session, in 1937, and, as the trumpeter Oliver Todd told Crouch, “Before the thing was over, all the guys that had rejected him were sitting down with their mouths wide open. I had seen a miracle. I really had. It was something that made tears come down my face.”

Here’s what Parker didn’t do in the intervening year: sit alone in his room and work on making his fingers go faster. He played music, thought music, lived music. In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images. There are ways of filming music that are themselves musical, that conjure a musical feeling above and beyond what’s on the soundtrack, but Chazelle’s images are nothing of the kind.

To justify his methods, Fletcher tells Andrew that the worst thing you can tell a young artist is “Good job,” because self-satisfaction and complacency are the enemies of artistic progress. It’s the moment where Chazelle gives the diabolical character his due, and it’s utter, despicable nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with “Good job,” because a real artist won’t be gulled or lulled into self-satisfaction by it: real artists are hard on themselves, curious to learn what they don’t know and to push themselves ahead. No artist can find what isn’t already there within; he can only develop it. What’s most memorable about John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is by My Side” is André 3000’s portrayal of Hendrix as a man with a secret—not an unpleasant personal secret but a sense of constant wonder arising from within, apart from and prior to any actual musical performance that realizes it. That’s how Clint Eastwood has Forest Whitaker portray Parker in “Bird”; that’s how Anthony Mann has James Stewart play the title role in “The Glenn Miller Story.” That’s even what John Cassavetes did with Bobby Darin in Cassavetes’s early, studio-produced film “Too Late Blues” (Darin plays a fictional jazz pianist).

But those performances of musicians with a secret are made possible by scripts that don’t rely on index-card psychology, as “Whiplash” does. Certainly, the movie isn’t “about” jazz; it’s “about” abuse of power. Fletcher could as easily be demanding sex or extorting money as hurling epithets and administering smacks. Yet Chazelle seems to suggest that Fletcher, for all his likely criminal cruelty, has nonetheless forced Andrew to take responsibility for himself, to make decisions on his own, to prove himself even by rebelling against Fletcher’s authority. There’s nothing in the film to indicate that Andrew has any originality in his music. What he has, and what he ultimately expresses, is chutzpah. That may be very helpful in readying Andrew for a job on television. “Whiplash” honors neither jazz nor cinema; it’s a work of petty didacticism that shows off petty mastery, and it feeds the sort of minor celebrity that Andrew aspires to. Buddy Rich. Buddy fucking Rich.  (Richard Brody in The New Yorker)

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