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Welcome to jazz boot camp |

Sunday Lifestyle

Welcome to jazz boot camp

- Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star

Jazz can be a devil’s brew, and jazz drumming is the lizard’s tail and bat’s wing that makes it extra devilish. Think of Buddy Rich and his crazed, sweat-flying solos, or Tony Williams letting loose behind Miles Davis’ abstract musings.

In Sundance 2014 Winner Whiplash, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old studying jazz drumming at elite Shaffer Conservatory in New York. His frenzied attack on the skins and cymbals gets the attention of Professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a militarily-precise instructor with a unique way of letting a student know when he’s messed up — he hurls a chair at Andrew’s head during a first sit-in with his coveted Jazz Studio Group.

Simmons (you may recall him as Perry White in the Spider-Man movies, or in Coen brothers outings) is a demonic force here. With his close-cropped hair, US Marine bearing and abrupt “cut it” hand gestures when he spots an off note in his precious ensemble, he’s more like a drill instructor than a nurturing music teacher. He’s the teacher you fear the most, the one who will pick apart all your weaknesses like a sadistic child dismembering a fly — and Andrew is drawn to this challenge like a fly to arsenic.

Despite being verbally abused, emasculated, cut and reattached to the Studio Group, and losing a girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because, he blithely assures her, “Someday, you’re going to ask me to play drums less, and I can’t do that,” Andrew rises to every baiting (beating?) from Fletcher, even bleeding on the skins on several occasions.

Teller here is phenomenal, even if he is just faking his way through high-powered solos on tight jazz arrangements of Duke Ellington’s Caravan and Hank Levy’s Whiplash. Unlike jazz improvisation, Fletcher’s charts for his group are tight, pinpoint-precise and, yes, guaranteed to cause whiplash among lesser players. Fletcher keeps the heat on, constantly rotating the drummer’s seat with “alternates” in the wings if the main man can’t cut it.

In this way, director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is quite a bit like Black Swan — that bloody, surreal meditation on perfection in art — crossed with Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. You’ve got jazz as a boot camp, where even the tiniest mistake in tempo means you’re history, adios, yesterday’s news, deadski. You’ve got a death-eyed drill sergeant who assails his players with withering gay-baiting tirades until they basically just stare at their feet rather than make eye contact with the maestro. And you’ve got Andrew as the willing instrument, allowing himself to be turned into a killing machine on drums, the very instrument that will ironically ensure his vengeance. 

Chazelle’s Whiplash was on the 2012 Black List, a Hollywood insiders’ stash of unproduced but highly promising scripts, before Teller and Simmons was cast and the green lit was given. It looks like it was shot on digital video (budget of $3.3 million), but director Chazelle captures the dynamo power of sticks slashing, cymbals vibrating, arms flailing and sweat flying in slow motion. Though some scenes seem underdeveloped — such as Andrew’s relationship with family members, who see his dream of being the best jazz drummer in the country as practically useless — the key confrontations between drummer and teacher are as riveting and kinetic as any Ginger Baker solo.

As Fletcher, Chazelle basically instructed Simmons to take his normal level of approaching the character and “turn it up to 11” — and beyond. This approach has resulted in tirades that rival R. Lee Ermey’s machine-gun screeds in Full Metal Jacket, such as the following: “Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh, my dear God — are you one of those single-tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine-year-old girl!”

Movies about musicians are generally hard to get right: if it’s about Mozart, classical musicians can spot the flubs in an instant. Jazz horn players usually end up getting lip-synched to Charlie Parker tracks or what have you. Here, Teller can’t really hide what he’s doing behind the drum kit, yet he brings a high level of verisimilitude to the performance. You can believe that he is possessed by drumming.

Part of the key to Andrew’s character is he’s deeply flawed: he doesn’t see how his fixation on being “the best” alienates him from his family, or possible romantic relationships in his life. Asked by his uncle over dinner if he has any friends, Andrew shrugs and says, “Charlie Parker didn’t know anybody until ‘til Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.”

“So that’s your idea of success, huh?” his Uncle Frank says.

“I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success,” says Andrew.

“Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.”

Andrew: “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”

The ruthless pursuit of perfection is somewhat similar to Natalie Portman’s fatal attraction in Black Swan, except most of the demons there existed in the ballet lead’s head. Here, the main demon circles around Andrew’s head on a daily basis, at every rehearsal and even onstage while performing at Carnegie Hall, where Fletcher throws a monkey wrench into the mix.

In truth, Fletcher and Andrew are more than a little alike: both seek a perfection that’s beyond just “good enough.” Charlie Parker might not have become “Bird” if Jones hadn’t thrown a cymbal at his head (an apocryphal story, at best: Jones actually threw the cymbal at Bird’s feet, almost like sounding a gong), but he might have been a happier, more contented individual who lived a longer life. And so the eternal battle between art and life rages on.

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