Sunday, 11 January 2015

Whiplash and music-film

Whiplash: not as in recoil but rather the sanction meted out to the workhorse of slave. Damien Chazelle's essay in the growing pains of a wannabe jazz drummer is a really entertaining matinée. It's certainly a step sideways into reality following the proper musician-fantasy Grand Piano, which he wrote for a colleague. I enjoyed it in many respects but in the end I felt that it had somehow underachieved its own goal- rather as Andrew, the protagonist, appears to have done.

Andrew, a music college freshman, is played by Miles Teller. His face is familiar here for his comic roles and the first big shock of the film is to see his character callow and starstruck by the iconic bandmaster Fletcher, played by JK Simmons. The film follows a twisting track as Simmons' Magus-figure bullies, sweet-talks and sabotages Andrew's good intentions. Whether Fletcher actually wants to get the best of him or whether he is trying to exert power for its own sake is never quite clear. The suggestion is the former. Puppy-fat vignettes with Andrew's father and the fumbling, insecure first forré in a romance are no match for the leanness of the musical education on offer, lean not only in figure, with Fletcher as a drill sergeant in his black tee, but also in time-keeping and talk.

So there's an Oedipal issue. Yet the film is really about the artisan. What makes him step beyond the confines of the satisfactory or the reproduced? Must there be conflict? Must there be pain? Well in this story there is. Teller does a good job of dusting himself back off and trying again (not to mention some really convincing drumming). Whatever Fletcher's intentions, Andrew finds himself driven forward, upward. The end of the film dovetails with (the) musical cadence and leaves us with a cliffhanger concerning our assessment of Fletcher's method and the relationship he now has with the prodigy.

My misgivings are not with this emotional aggregation. Rather I found myself unable to settle on how Chazelle wanted us to support our conclusions. The film opens with sharp cutting on key beats of the music, setting up the coincidence of film and music yet this gets a little messy towards the end. It would be a fudge to suggest that 'hey, this is jazz, lets keep the mistakes in'. The general storytelling is too conventional (not meant perjoratively) for the grammar of the film to be anything more than a colour. I really liked the close-in, close-up visceral nature of the filming and the alternate perspectives (including overhead shots); the literal blood, sweat and tears. What it says about the dynamics of Andrew's mind is... well, I didn't get anything from it.

This may be a problem of making a film about music. The film is, as it stands, a tight, punchy coming of age drama. I enjoyed it. Perhaps I should stop flogging it.

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