As someone who devoted most of their formative years to music, I can say with confidence that the music making process can get intense. Tempers can easily be tested and the potential for embarrassment is always on the cusp. Lifelong insecurities come from this stuff.
With Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle understands that undercurrent of emotion (himself a former music student) and mines it for all it’s worth. The story of a jazz drumming student pushed to his absolute limit by a ruthless instructor, Whiplash is a far more intense experience than a majority of thrillers and a kinetic, disturbing look at the lengths one will go to reach their potential.
War is hell but music can be pretty close. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young prospective drum student at one of New York’s premiere jazz academies. It’s there that he catches the eye of music maestro Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) and is given his big break into the world of top-tier jazz performance. Little does he realize that Fletcher sees greatness in him, which means he’s about to launch a full-scale psychological campaign against Andrew to bring that greatness forward.
It’s compliment that can’t bestowed on nearly enough movies but it absolutely fits here: Whiplash is never boring. Chazelle delivers a taught, skillful film that asks questions about what it takes to achieve greatness and whether greatness through adversity is the right path. The game of war between Teller and Simmons is amazing to witness, with each subsequent moment of the movie feeling like it’s reaching the razor’s edge. Chazelle knows that in the world of competitive music even the most innocent mistake, like misplacing a music folder or not adequately practicing come rehearsal time, can cause a panic attack — something he very well may be out to incite.
Of course, so much of that is due to the cast. Teller ditches the smarmy Vice Vaughn impression and plays a real, layered, driven individual. Through him we see both the triumphs and sacrifices that come with going for the gold and are asked “Is it worth this punishment?” Or rather, would I literally bleed as much as he currently is for my craft?
Which brings us to Simmons, who is nothing short of a knockout as Fletcher. The actor is constantly riding the line of being ridiculous in his abrasiveness, but by god it works. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the writers have given him a very difficult, duplicitous character to work with; after doing something reprehensible, we’ll see hints of humanity and maybe even empathize with him, which is usually followed by him doing something every more appalling. Simmon’s performance as this battering ram of a person, understandable in purpose but deplorable in methods, is a standout.
Equal if not greater praise has to be given to the editing of Whiplash for keeping things constantly on the point of panic. Jazz is alive in the very fiber of this film’s being. The big band performance sequences are some of the most comprehensive, memorable portrayals of music performance put to screen thanks to the deliberate, mathematical way in which they’re put together. Maybe the sequences themselves come close to being long in the tooth, much like Simmons’ performance, but they always hit the right note by the end. The effect is absolutely heart-racing.
It’s stunning how lean and mean (emphasis on the latter) Chazelle’s sophomore effort is. Its universal themes are explored in depth without being heavy handed, the performances are killer and the intense emotion of the piece pulls you in for good. Simmons’ Fletcher may believe that “good job” is a poisonous phrase, but it’s a vast understatement when it comes to Whiplash.