Whiplash is an invigorating work of art—an adrenaline-pumping sparring match between two stubborn men, both who will stop at nothing in their quest for artistic perfection. Exploding on-screen with energetic direction, fire-cracker editing and the searing performances of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, Whiplash announces the arrival of an exciting new voice in American cinema—that of Damien Chazelle. Chazelle’s film, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January, may center its story on music but this raw and intimate film is more of a study of ambition, ego and the lengths people go to attain greatness.
The aforementioned Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) plays Andrew Neyman, an ambitious young musician who is determined to become the best jazz drummer at the elite New York City music conservatory he’s enrolled in. The only child of a failed author and single-parent, Andrew’s single-minded ambition to be one of the all time greats costs him his friends and even relationships. It’s telling that his only friend is his dad (Paul Reiser). When challenged about his unhealthy behavior, Andrew counters that he’d rather die young and alone and have people talk about him 50 years from now than live to be 90 and be remembered by no one.
Andrew’s drumming soon catches the eye of Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the conservatory’s most famed instructor. Fletcher, who leads the school’s best jazz studio band, is renowned for his talent but also feared for his ruthless methods. “Good job. There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good job.” That’s Fletcher’s mantra. He believes that pushing his students to the limit—to their breaking point—is the only way to achieve greatness. When Fletcher asks Andrew to join his class, the kid thinks he’s on his way to becoming the next Buddy Rich. Wrong!
To say that Fletcher is a temperamental jerk would be a grotesque understatement. A sadistic monster is a more fitting descriptor. This is a guy who would make R.L. Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman’s from Full Metal Jacket wet his pants in fear. With his all-black getup, bald and clean shaven look, not to mention massive biceps, Simmons’ Fletcher certainly cuts a supremely imposing figure. And the veteran actor, who has never had a role as juicy as this one, burns through the celluloid with a performance that’s equally volatile and charismatic. It’s a performance for the ages.
We first get a hint of Fletcher’s legendary temper when a student misses a note during a rehearsal. His verbal hailstorm of profanity is at once, terrifying enough to induce a panic attack, but funny enough for a chuckle. What’s surprising is how creative and then psychologically damaging the insults begin to get. But Fletcher isn’t above physical abuse either. He takes it a step further by hurling chairs at his students, slapping them, and even working them until their blisters burst into pools of blood. “Not my tempo,” he says in response to their tears. It doesn’t matter if the class has to go on until 4am in the morning. It’s all about getting the right tempo.
In spite of being beaten to the floor by Fletcher every day, Andrew keeps going back for more. Why? Because he’s committed to be the best! No one got to the top by quitting. That rat-a-tat between the two – Fletcher’s fiery intensity and Andrew’s maddening obsession—is the film’s driver. Unlike most student-mentor dramas that tend to build up to feel-good, heart-tugging finales, Whiplash is structured like an epic death match with Fletcher playing the defending champion and Andrew, the young upstart with nothing to lose. The arenas they spar in are the chiaroscuro -lit jazz classrooms and concert halls. Their psychological battles, of course, are the feverish musical sessions, which get more and more psychologically intense as the film progresses. These sequences, which are breathtakingly cut by Tom Cross to the beat of the drums and to the notes of jazz staples like Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Juan Tizole & Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” give the film a rhythm and energy befitting of an action thriller.
Some have criticized the film as an inaccurate take on jazz and musicianship but this isn’t a film specifically about jazz. It could be about ballet or mathematics or rising up the corporate ladder and it would still be the same film. Well, it wouldn’t have the great music but you get my drift. Jazz is simply the shell Chazelle uses to tell his story. If there’s a fault with the film, it’s that it posits that hard work equals greatness, not that it gets its history wrong.
Like Darren Aronfosky’s Black Swan, another movie about ambition and madness, Chazelle sets Whiplash in a heightened reality, where everything is grandiose by design. Everything from the editing to the cinematography to even the musical cues is heightened and intensified in a way that would never happen in a real jazz school. This leads to a couple of implausible sequences but Chazelle understands this. It’s a deliberate move. The result is a movie that engrosses you from its first frame and gradually tightens its grip on you as the drama intensifies. By the time it hits its crescendo during the transcendent finale, the best of any film I’ve seen this year, I was left breathless and in absolute awe.
Running time: 107 minutes
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics
Rating: R for strong language including some sexual references