The reason you usually love J.K. Simmons in everything is that he brings a gruff warmth to his no-nonsense dad types. That is not however, the reason he won an Oscar for his role as sadistic music professor Fletcher in “Whiplash.” His treatment of his students goes a few ticks past no-nonsense, and that gruff warmth is flashed purely as a trap. It takes Simmons as an actor from memorable to unforgettable.
This is a story stripped of any extra baggage. It is only about a young music student and his teacher. As a story in which everything except ambition must be abandoned, maybe this is appropriate; the tale is as single minded as its subject. And what a fascinating subject it is, and how stunningly portrayed.
Fletcher is a notoriously tough teacher at the “best music school in the country,” and Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a young but determined student. His face is boyish and blank, but in his social interactions he hints at ruthlessness that could one day match the level of his mentor. As flashy a role as Simmons had, Teller had a pretty juicy one too. Lots of bleeding and sweating on drums.
Simmons is pompously muscular and lean, dressed habitually in all black. He is a virtuoso of vicious insults, skillfully weaving personal details into his criticism of musical ability. He is the conductor of the conservatory’s highly competitive (all-male) studio band, and no one seems to question his methods because of the results he gets.
When he discovers Andrew, he gives him a shot at the big leagues, and soon the young drummer is subjected to the same crushing insults and perfectionism that ostensibly makes the rest of the group great. Rather than running out of the room crying, though, Andrew seems to blossom as a musician, and willingly bleeds all over everything in pursuit of his goals to be a truly great musician.
When he runs away, injured, from a car crash to make it to a competition, the issue between pure drive and self-destruction comes into question, one Andrew’s concerned father (Paul Reiser) asks. Fletcher works his magic on college kids, and the line between pushing them and destroying them is an interesting one.
His cruel methods work on the talent in Andrew, but it is the young man’s existing anti-social tendencies that also “benefit” from Fletcher’s influence. The definition of “benefit” is what the film explores. Fletcher’s stated goal is to brutally rouse talented musicians from complacency, and he says “good job” is the most destructive thing they can hear.
We have the dad’s character to suggest that this is not for the best, and we have Andrew’s character to test the theory. I won’t ruin the rather wonderful ending by telling you the film’s answer, and it’s one to argue over long after the movie ends. It’s a short, taut little movie, anyway, and you won’t have to wait long.
French film fest begins March 12
The University of South Alabama Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures welcomes the Tournées Film Festival to campus March 12-21, 2015. All films are free and open to the public. And each film will be accompanied by a lecture or discussion featuring USA Faculty.
Thursday, March 12: “Of Gods And Men,” 7 p.m. Student Center Ballroom
Friday, March 13: “The French Minister,” 7 p.m. Student Center Terrace Room
Saturday, March 14: “Jimmy P,” 7 p.m. Student Center Ballroom
Thursday, March 19: “Augustine,” 7 p.m. Marx Library Auditorium
Friday, March 20: “Grand Illusion,” 7 p.m. Student Center Ballroom
Saturday, March 21: “The Princess of Montponsier,” Bertrand Tavernier 7 p.m. Student Center Terrace Room
Visit www.southalabama.edu/colleges/artsandsci/frenchfilmfestival/ for more information.