Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser
Directed by Damien Chazelle
"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job.'"
Whiplash by the viciously harsh college jazz band instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who cares not a smidgen about his students' emotional well-being, only about doing whatever it takes to get his fledgling musicians to the peak of their performance capabilities. Not one to mince words (those students easily offended by sexual harassment or foul language need not venture into his classroom), Fletcher invites freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) to sit in and play drums with his elite jazz ensemble at Shaffer Conservatory of Music (a fictionalized Julliard), only to use Andrew's foibles (his mother left him as a kid, his father's failed at achieving his dream as a writer) against him in a wickedly abusive teacher-student relationship. Verbal abuse quickly turns into physical abuse and Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) begins to question whether Andrew's strive to be the best drummer in his class may be overtaking his common sense in allowing this professor to treat him in such a way.
That strikingly powerful sentiment is voiced in the film
The funny thing about Whiplash is that its story is actually incredibly simplistic, but what it brings to the table is strikingly realistic picture of two men struggling to be the best and their co-dependent bond that links them together. Fletcher wants to find "the one" -- the student who will become the "new jazz great." He feels the only way to achieve that is to push his students to places they've never gone before emotionally by never coddling them and treating them as harshly as possible in order to reach this goal. Andrew has wanted nothing more for his life than to be a fantastic drummer. He sees Fletcher's tactics as helping him realize this dream and despite his hatred towards the man's caustic nature, he respects him since Andrew sees Fletcher as the only one who could possibly believe in him. (In a fantastic moment, Andrew's family turns on him, belittling him in a similar way to Fletcher which seemingly makes Andrew wonder where exactly he can turn to for guidance in his life if not to Fletcher.)
While the film makes small inroads towards a romance for Andrew (in a successfully simplistic way, I may add), Whiplash is about its two main characters brought to life by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. While I placed Teller on my RyMickey Awards list of Breakthroughs of 2013, I worried that his characters would be nothing more than smug pricks, but that's not the case here at all and it pleased me considerably. When the film began I found myself doubting that any sane person would put up with Fletcher's nonsense. However, as the flick progresses, Teller convinced me that Andrew needed Fletcher in order to succeed, calloused and bleeding fingers and all. The fluctuating emotions of cockiness to depression were pitch perfect and Teller convincingly portrays the struggle of a gifted prodigy without ever losing a sense of "being normal" which is a characteristic we often see in flicks that focus on wunderkinds.
With a shaved head, dressed all in black with a tight t-shirt showing off his muscular stature, J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher is an imposing figure right off the bat. We in the audience can't take our eyes off the guy despite the fact that no student is safe from his brutality and manipulative demeanor. It's a privilege to be selected to be in his jazz band -- the oxymoronic notion of that statement isn't lost on the viewer as one has to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this type of emotional and physical torture. Towards the end of the film, Simmons has a small monologue (of which the opening quote of this review stems from) and while it doesn't necessarily make us see the character in a new light, it allows us to understand the character's motivations. Simmons is a powerhouse here and perfectly conveys who Fletcher is by the time the end credits roll.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle (who also wrote the incredibly enjoyable Grand Piano earlier this year -- which is streaming on Netflix, so watch it) is a relative newcomer to the scene, but he brings such a sense of realism to the music world that there isn't a moment in Whiplash that feels disingenuous. Making a film that focuses on jazz music is a feat unto itself, but finding new and unique ways as the film progresses to showcase a guy banging on a drum shows talent. The flick feels fresh and vibrant despite oftentimes taking place in small, sterile, music studio spaces. The struggle and difficult relationship between student and mentor has been tackled in films numerous times before, but Chazelle has created a thrilling experience in Whiplash that I'm still thinking about long after the movie has finished.
The RyMickey Rating: A-