The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Back in 1995, there was a movie called Mr. Holland's Opus. It was about a music teacher who inspired his students through passion and encouragement. Whiplash is the reverse of that film. It's about a music teacher who inspires through abject fear and humiliation. As someone who studied music throughout school, I can attest that both types of instructors exist. More importantly, both can make a difference. The beauty of Whiplash is its slightly subversive suggestion that dysfunction can be every bit as useful as function.

Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) plays Andrew, a young drummer with dreams of greatness. He's enrolled in a prestigious music conservatory, and sees his big opportunity when one of the most esteemed instructors, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), invites him to join a jazz band. Fletcher proves to be a mercurial figure, prone to outbursts, sudden shifts in mood, and verbal abusiveness. Andrew does his best to please his teacher, but the more he tries, the less he succeeds. Fletcher repeatedly tests him, building him up only to tear him right back down. Determined to prove his worth to himself and his slightly disapproving father (Paul Reiser), Andrew willingly makes extreme sacrifices that he hopes will show Fletcher his seriousness.

Whiplash is one of the best movies ever made about obsessive drive. Andrew, who dreams of being the next Buddy Rich, works tirelessly to improve his performance. Often, he plays until his hands bleed. Each time Fletcher swaps him out for a backup musician, or tells him he somehow wasn't playing the right tempo even though he clearly was, Andrew uses the rage building up inside to push himself forward. He meets each disappointment and criticism with a “screw you” attitude, even when part of him wants to give up. Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, explores what it takes to legitimately become great at something, and concludes that borderline single-mindedness is essential. This idea pays off magnificently in the story's third act, which contains several juicy, meaningful plot twists.

As a portrait of a teacher and a student, the film is equally captivating. Fletcher is, quite simply, an abusive jerk. He uses epithets, insults, and mind games without regard. Will you like him? Is he a good teacher? It doesn't matter, because he gets results from Andrew. Being an arrogant, impossible-to-please S.O.B. only makes Andrew work harder. While there's no doubt that his techniques are often offensive, Whiplash suggests that motivation can come in any form, and it's just as valid coming from a bad place as it is from a good one. The dynamic between the two characters is engaging. You often can't tell if they love or hate one another. Something happens between them, though, and it leads to great music. There's a scene late in the movie in which Fletcher explains his approach. Whereas a lot of movies would have made this speech conciliatory, Whiplash wisely makes it defiant. Some students, the film says, need a jerk to help them access their own talents to the fullest.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are nothing short of magical here. The former sells Andrew's burning desire to be great and the desperate need to prove himself, while the latter is authentic as the eternally hard-nosed egotist who realizes that mentoring greatness brings a measure of greatness onto himself. Scenes between the actors are intense, occasionally funny, and always effective. Their chemistry makes Whiplash so much more than just the story of a student and his abusive teacher. It's a master class in how adversity can be used to one's advantage.

Looking back, most of us would probably acknowledge that the teachers who pushed us hardest, even if we hated their guts, were the ones who made the most significant impact. I resented the college professors who told me my writing was anything less than wonderful, but they gave me the tools that are so valuable to me now. Thank goodness for them. Whiplash is smart, funny, and electrifying in its storytelling, but also really wise in its understanding of how there are many roads to a goal, some far more difficult than others, but each possessing its own potential merit.

( out of four)

Whiplash is rated R for strong language including some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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