This is why I chose to be a self-taught musician. Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons star in Whiplash.
Director – Damien Chazelle
Screenplay – Damien Chazelle
Producer – Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, Michel Litvak & David Lancaster
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old jazz drummer who’s been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States. Everyone in his class is aware that the infamous Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is looking for a new drum alternate, and when Andrew auditions for him, he’s accepted into the studio band. Little is Andrew aware that his new jazz instructor will be pushing him beyond his limits with some highly unconventional motivational methods.
As a self-taught drummer, Whiplash has been on my radar since I first saw its trailer. I’ve seen my share of psychological thrillers this year, but it’s hard to believe none of them are as intense as a film about jazz musicians.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash darts its way from beginning to end as fast-paced and frenetic as the adrenaline fueled jazz instrumentals that blast their way through the film. This is a film for anyone that loves great dialogue and gripping character studies, regardless of whether you’re a musician or not. Chazelle takes the story beyond its simple premise of a relationship between student and instructor by posing the question: How far is one willing to push themselves in order to succeed?
For me, it was hours upon hours of perfectionist practice a week. Back during my high school years, I remember not getting respect from other drummers that I knew. See, I was the self-taught kid who played a cheap right-handed set (one I still have to this day) left-handed, and held the sticks the wrong way, and didn’t give two shits about doing whirligig tricks with them. Nothing irritated the hell out of me more than getting my technique or style corrected and it pushed me to wanna be better than the “schooled” crowd. So it’d be just me, my kit, a CD player and headphones, and it brought my inner worst critic out of me. Make a mistake? Stop the CD player, press play and start over. Make a mistake? Stop the CD player, press play and start over. Make a mistake? Stop the CD player, press play and start over. Wash, rinse and repeat. What mostly drew me to this film is that I saw a little of myself in these two complex individuals.
Well, minus the physical and verbal abuse.
Despite being a drama, Whiplash excels on a technical level that rivals any blockbuster film that’s been released this year. Justin Hurwitz’s score packs a punch, and Sharone Meir’s cinematography and Tom Cross’s Oscar-worthy editing cuts their way through the musical numbers like a lightning bolt, creating an energetic atmosphere that sucks the viewer into this world. If you’re not on the edge of your seat by the climactic drum solo, you may wanna check your pulse.
Miles Teller (also a self-taught drummer) has done his share of cinematic turds with Project X, 21 & Over and this year’s That Awkward Moment, but he can act and has proven so before in 2010’s Rabbit Hole and last year’s The Spectacular Now. His performance in Whiplash, the best of his young career so far, should silence the naysayers. Teller blends the right amount of anxiety, insecurity and confidence into Andrew, a promising young musician, who often feels more connected with his drum kit than to his own father (a small but welcome performance by Paul Reiser) and girlfriend, and whose drive and passion lingers on the edge of an unhealthy obsession.
J. K. Simmons, though, steals the show (although Teller holds his own beautifully against the veteran character actor) as Terence Fletcher, the character baby of Full Metal Jacket and West Side Story. After years of delivering dependable character work in Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Burn After Reading and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, it’s great to finally see Simmons get a meaty role that his talent deserves, and it’s a performance that should not only be a lock for Best Supporting Actor, it may very well be his award to lose. Turning profanity and every slur in the book into an art form, Simmons chews the scenery, but never once in a hammy way; it’s absolutely terrifying and he commands every second of our attention, much like his intimidating character does with his students. In lesser hands, Fletcher could’ve easily been turned into a caricature, but Simmons injects a few moments of humanity amidst his merciless tirades that round the character out, and also make his outbursts all the more frightening.
Despite his unforgivably demanding behavior, it’s hard to argue with Fletcher when he says the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job”. In a day and age where we hand out ribbons and trophies to entitled brats just for showing up to their Little League game, his point is right on there.
Exhilarating, stylish and feverishly paced, Whiplash is a breakthrough filmmaking effort from Damien Chazelle that calls into question if achieving perfection is really worth exceeding one’s breaking point. Above all else, it’s a toe-to-toe showcase for Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons, the former finally proving he can be taken seriously as an actor and the latter giving a career, Oscar-level performance that hopefully leads to bigger and better opportunities for him. This is one of the most unforgettable films of 2014.
I give Whiplash an A+ (★★★★).
REVIEWS COMING LATER NEXT WEEK…
12/29/14 What the Hell Were They Thinking?!
12/30/14 Benjamin’s Stash
1/2/15 The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death