Directed by: Damien Chazelle.
Written by: Damien Chazelle.
Starring: Miles Teller (Andrew), J.K. Simmons (Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole).
How far do you have to push yourself to be great at something? Does greatness require you to subject yourself to people who will torture and torment you, if it makes you better? Does it require single minded focus so much so that you sacrifice everything else in your life, and become a complete asshole in the process? Whiplash is a film that tackles these issues, but refreshingly does not really come up with an answer. Also refreshingly, the film does not give into clichés easily, and zigs when you expect it to zag throughout the film. It is a film about music, but it has the visceral energy of an expertly crafted thriller, right up to its stunning climax.
The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a first year drummer at Schaffer – the best music school in the country (or so we’re told). He is a talented jazz drummer –but he wants to be a hell of a lot more than talented – he wants to be one of the great, the next Buddy Rich. He is the alternate drummer in a secondary competition band at the school – but when Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) hears him play, he offers him a spot (again, as an alternate) in the Studio Band – the one that everyone in the school wants to be in. Everyone in the band is terrified of Fletcher – and it doesn’t take long for Andrew to figure out why. His first time on the drums, Fletcher is nice the first few times he screws up – either rushing or dragging the tempo, he stops and tells him to try again. And again. And again. And finally, out of nowhere, he hurls a chair at Andrew. And that is when Fletcher rips into him for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Fletcher will push Andrew farther and farther than he thought possible – he’ll practice until his bands bleed. He’ll cruelly dump the girl (Melissa Benoist) he just starting dating because she will hold him back. He goes home to his single dad (Paul Reiser) and his extended family, and acts like a petulant child.
Fletcher is the type of role that comes along to a character actor like Simmons maybe once a career if you’re lucky. Anyone paying attention has known that Simmons is a terrific actor, at least as far back as his scarily good work as a skinhead on Oz, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has done some fine supporting work in film, and just about every TV show imaginable, who is finally given the role of a lifetime. His performance has already been compared to R. Lee Ermey’s great one in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and to be sure he does resemble the character to a certain extent, with his never ending tirade of profanity and sexual insults, belittling the members of his band to push them farther. But while Ermey’s performance is mainly comic and brilliantly one note, Simmons finds different aspects to play – and hits different notes. He is terrifying when he’s screaming at the top of lungs, but he’s even scarier when he’s quiet – threatening to explode at a moment’s notice. Simmons owns the screen every moment he’s on it. The accomplishment of Teller’s performance is that he doesn’t let Simmons completely overwhelm him – even as Fletcher belittles Andrew in the film. As it moves along, and Andrew becomes more confident, he begins to talk back to Fletcher – begins to believe he truly is the next great one. Even if we naturally root for Andrew, Teller doesn’t make him wholly sympathetic or likable – quite the opposite in fact. By the end of the movie, it is no longer a cruel teacher torturing an innocent student – but two assholes squaring off against each other.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash has a propulsive energy from the outset. The smartest decision he may have made was to choose the drums for Andrew’s instrument – as the constant beat provides a sound you feel throughout your guts. The editing quickens in the music scenes, but is cut to the beat of the drum, and never becomes overly chaotic so that you do not know what is going on. The screenplay introduces elements and supporting characters, and we think we know where it’s going, but it doesn’t go there – it goes in a different direction instead. The climax of the movie may not make complete, logical sense, but is so thrilling, I barely cared.