Years ago before any of you, dear readers, were born I came up with a punk band the drummer of which was a gyrating madman named Slash Whiplash, who had switchblades in his drumsticks. When he would play all the veins in his arms and neck would stick out.
In a story a bit closer to reality I once worked with this dude who had been a professional drummer when he was a teen. He toured with Don McLean among others. He would tell me stories about how he took lessons from Buddy Rich. He claimed that he would rehearse so much that afterwards he would piss blood. I am sure that was a metaphorical story.
Rich who died in 1987 was considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. Legend has it that his temper had a short fuse. The film Whiplash takes the premise of an aspiring drumming student at an exclusive musical conservatory and the abusive professor who takes him under his wing.
First of all, the performances in this film are razor sharp and in tempo to the excellently written script. J. K. Simmons plays a teacher who is closer to a Marine drill sergeant than a mentor. Miles Teller is the student who practices until his hands bleed. Teller appears to be playing the drums for real and he plays a couple of solos during the movie that are simply mesmerizing. Whiplash is the kind of movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat with excitement, which says a lot since this is more of a psychological battle of wills as opposed to an action flick.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle should be on your watch list. Chazelle just bursts forth in every scene, covering the drumming action from just the right angle and cutting away to the brass with just the right subliminal momentum. But it’s not just the concert and rehearsal scenes that rock (literally in 7/4 and 14/8 time signatures). Chazelle works his magic at a dinner sequence that has you rooting for Teller even though he’s being a prick. But nobody is a prick 100-percent of the time.
In a way Teller responds to the abuse his character is receiving from Simmons like a hostage that begins to identify with their captors. Simmons has never been more powerful as an actor, not in Oz, not in Juno, certainly not in Spider-Man. Simmons has this charismatic edge that makes you think he would be a great educator but then he bullies every student under his baton regardless of horn, woodwind or percussion. This weird relationship between the two comes to a head in a movie conclusion that is as invigorating as it is in consummating the whole story.
Besides the numerous references to Buddy Rich there is also the myth of Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head during a performance where he missed a cue. The truth is the cymbal was thrown at the floor to his feet and not at his head. But that shouldn’t stop a good movie from printing the legend, so to speak. Even Clint Eastwood did that in his biopic Bird, which also featured the cymbal as a constantly occurring visual motif.
Whiplash opens this weekend exclusively at the River Oaks Three.
— Michael Bergeron