“Whiplash” is a dose of cinematic excitement. In an age when so many films appear to be more controlled by focus groups or marketing executives, it is a deeply personal and immensely alive story. Damien Chazelle has transformed a somewhat conventional topic like the relationship between a music student and his instructor into a thriller fueled by a brilliant undertow of social criticism regarding what it takes to succeed in an increasingly competitive and cutthroat society. How far are you willing to push yourself in order to succeed? How far are you willing to go to help someone else achieve success? “Whiplash” is as frantic as a drum solo, rising and falling just as the aspirations and dreams of its protagonist rise and fall. It’s driven by two electric performances, the tightest editing in a movie this year, and a daring screenplay that writes itself into a corner before finding an unforeseen path out.
Andrew Neyman is a young man who studies at one of the best music schools in New York. One night, while he’s practicing, his drumming catches the attention of Mr. Fletcher – the most important teacher at the school and conductor for its most prestigious jazz band. Fletcher pauses, listens, barks some commands at the young man, and then moves on, appearing to be dissatisfied with what he heard. Andrew had his chance; many of us have just one opportunity to wow our potential benefactors, and he didn’t succeed. He goes back to his regular class band and informs his father (a wonderfully real Paul Reiser) that his chance to advance up has probably gone by.
Fletcher’s attitude issues aren’t limited to his interactions with Andrew; they extend to his approach toward music in general. Of course, Fletcher’s dismissal of Andrew in the first scene is only the beginning of many examples of what might be described as his “teaching style.” According to an apocryphal tale, Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head one night when he made a mistake, pushing him over the edge and forcing him into music. Without that cymbal, would music history have been altered? Would Charlie Parker have gone home and refined his technique before practicing and driving himself beyond failure? Fletcher employs a similar ruthless tactic on his students: tossing furniture, calling Andrew names, playing mind games, and physically abusing him with repetitive drum solos until he bleeds on the kit. But that blood fuels his musical enthusiasm. Andrew flourishes as a result of this encouragement and goes out on a date with the cute lady he’d been afraid to talk to before and takes first chair in the country’s most significant band.
Andrew is a confident young musician on the cusp of stardom in Shreveport, Louisiana. In this case, it’s Miles Teller who shines as Andrew, delivering his finest performance to date in breakthrough roles in “Rabbit Hole” and “The Spectacular Now.” Andrew is naturally insecure, but he also knows he has something special. Teller walks that tightrope with ease; never straying from the mark by giving Fletcher enough confidence while also allowing viewers to glimpse the life inside him.
If Fletcher had been played by a different actor, he could have come across as a caricature. However, Simmons avoids this trap. Even after playing an abusive teacher who seems to break the law with his actions, we still find ourselves drawn to him. Although he may not be telling the whole story, the man is right when he states that two of the most dangerous words in English are “good job.” In today’s society, it seems as if Encouragement has become the new way to teach people, and often times everyone gets a prize for participating whether they worked hard or not. Has this technique caused talent to go unnoticed because we’ve been “over- watering” them with compliments? I believe Simmons does an excellent job at explaining how determined men who use abusive pressure tactics feel as though it’s necessary produce diamonds.
While “Whiplash” would be memorable just for Teller and Simmons’ performances, the film’s tempo elevates it to a new level. Editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir frequently place us on stage with Andrew and Fletcher, cutting and panning in time with the drum’s beat. It’s captivating, to say the least, especially in a climax that generates more suspense than any action film or thriller this year. The name alludes to a song that is played numerous times throughout Chazelle’s movie. It might also imply the sense of wowed astonishment you’ll experience when it’s finished.
Now playing on Cinema HD.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Produced by: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster
Starring: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Release dates: January 16, 2014 (Sundance), October 10, 2014 (United States)
Running time: 106 minutes
Country: United States