A Painful, Beautiful, Whiplash

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It is indeed, as a poster claims, a “groove,” a “duel” and a “revelation” and certainly one of the best movies I saw from 2014. “Whiplash” is a tense and surprising “overcoming obstacles” story that provides enough twists to keep you eager for more.

The world of jazz students in their 20s attending a demanding academy feels claustrophobic; there is little else to occupy the story. But it is this focus and intimacy in the film that makes it work so well.

I love it when storytellers know when to stop augmenting and allow a narrative to stand alone! (If more of us preachers knew this sermons would be shorter and more memorable). This is a more disciplined small “film” than standard Hollywood “entertainment.” Thankfully.

Miles Teller is as close as most of us will ever get to passionate jazz (big band style here) performance,  and he is fantastic. His feel for the music and determination to be better (although measured almost exclusively in speed for some reason) is what forms the center of the film. Even non-musicians will thrill at his physicality and intensity.

His scenes away from the trap set are also believable and poignant. Especially compelling are conversations with his girlfriend trying to balance the reality of everyday life/relationships with the dreamy goal setting and ego-centrism so endemic (and maybe critical?) to our early adult years.

There are a couple of unnecessary turns toward melodrama that make this movie for me “Extremely Gifted” rather than “Virtuosic”, but what a movie!

J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and you’ ll know why.  You will hate him but be unable to look away as his character walks perilously close to cartoonish in intensity and abusiveness. I found his role somewhat unrealistic given our culture’s awareness of power inequalities in education and the work place. But all was forgiven as the movie played brilliantly (didn’t rush, didn’t drag) toward an utterly surprising, rewarding, and thrilling conclusion.

And yes, there is lots of drumming in it. You won’t mind. You will want to find some high energy Big Band music… you will wish you could focus on one thing; like a great instrumentalist or like a movie producer who knows exactly what they are doing. Extraordinary.

And the final 15 minutes for me equal the best conclusion of any film in memory.

“Holy crap.” I thought. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to cheer “Encore!”