Whiplash

Boy, am I glad I was a mediocre middle school band instrumentalist, and nothing more! The sweet hell of music school is one thing, certainly, but the special sweet hell of being a prodigy? No thank you.

We’ve seen stories about musical prodigies before, though. They’re usually quiet, nerdy, antisocial, studious. There’s something about Miles Teller’s Andrew that is off, for sure, but he’s brazen, loudmouthed, cocky, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. His ego, for the most part, actually helps him in social situations. He’s a relatively normal kid, save for the fact that he can absolutely kill it on the drums. It’s deceiving.

What’s also deceiving is J.K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher, the music teacher whose rage I can’t even begin to form words about. Simmons has the kindest eyes and face, and that kindness could never fully leave his visage, but his performance in this movie is about as close as he’ll ever get. The thing is, Fletcher is harmless. He throws things, he yells, he threatens, he screams, but he’s harmless. And yet, in all the terrifying moments of temper loss, it’s so simple to forget that. He takes what little power the talented kids have and wrings it out in seconds. He holds their fate, their futures, their livelihoods in his rather large hands, because they don’t know any better.

There’s a certain Steve Jobsiness to Fletcher, and not just because we mostly see him in a tight black tee shirt. (Or is it a Louis CKiness? A Ricky Gervaisiness?) Actually, the costuming has a lot to do with it. But there’s this brazen focus, this inability to comprehend ever losing, ever coming in second, that brings him closer to a CEO-like fearless leader, such as Jobs. His whole body oozes hatred, and his relationships with all of his students, especially Andrew, are wound so tightly that you truly can’t imagine him ever having a good time. The moments of humanness that we see interspersed throughout the movie, like when he chats with a friend’s toddler daughter, or interacts with Andrew at a small club after their falling out, are really just moments of Fletcher acting. Simmons did a meta role here — he played the greatest fictional actor of all time.

This movie is not the best picture of the year, because it’s only an acting vehicle. Sure, there were creative shots abound, and some of the drumming sequences felt like athletic races and fights and, really, anything but musical. But the drums were not another “character” in this movie. It was a one-two shot between Simmons and Teller, a bizarre exploration of how a kid with no daddy issues — because how can you have them when Paul Reiser plays your dad and is the nicest? — can somehow have daddy issues anyway with this music teacher. Fletcher is not a mentor. He’s a warning. If Andrew isn’t careful, he could wind up like Fletcher and alienate the people he loves by letting his talent run his life. He could also fail at a musical career and have to spend his life teaching kids who show far more potential and drive than he ever did.

Maybe I’m reading into the characters a little too much. But I think one of the many points of the movie was to show how some adults really don’t grow up — they stay shells of their former selves, slaves to their routines. And to contrast with that, some kids show beautiful promise, with just a bit of reigning in necessary for them to achieve it. Or, in the case of Andrew, a lot of reigning in, and a lot of bloody blisters. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, because it kept me on edge for two hours, but it was an intense look at the world of jazz, the smoothness of which is something we take for granted.

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