Those who were able to see Whiplash before cheering it on at this year’s Oscar ceremony (where it took home three statues) are very lucky. It didn’t enjoy a wide release or even much buzz until right before award season began, and that’s a real shame, because it is a truly incredible bit of filmmaking.
Written and directed by the relatively unknown Damien Chazelle, Whiplash tells the story of Andrew: an impassioned young drummer at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music played by Miles Teller. Andrew’s talent quickly attracts the intimidating attention of Shaffer’s competition band leader, Terence Fletcher, played to an Oscar-winning pitch by J.K. Simmons. But this is no ordinary band. Fletcher is relentless in his pursuit of its perfection, manipulative and often cruel. “The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job’,” he tells them. And he sees a bit of himself in Andrew, who is content with nothing less than Buddy Rich-level brilliance, drumming in his dorm until his palms bleed. Their mentor-student dynamic is volatile, to say the least, and the stakes for them both are incredibly high.
Except for his father, Andrew’s family doesn’t understand or fully support his dream of drumming greatness. His cousins excel at sports, go to Ivy League schools and have active social lives. When his Uncle Frank asks him whether or not he has any friends at Shaffer, Andrew says he doesn’t see the point.
“Well, who are you going to play with otherwise? Lennon and McCartney, they were school buddies, am I right?”
“Charlie Parker didn’t know anybody ’til Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.”
“So that’s your idea of success, huh?”
“I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success.”
Within the first few minutes, it’s obvious Whiplash is more than just an artistic look into the life of music student. The muted colors, minimal music, and intimate angles lend a sense of uneasiness to Andrew’s world. Each moment of this film about jazz, of all things, is more intense than the last. Less than two hours long, Whiplash is perfectly paced, like a piece of terrifying music, with a stunning ending unlike anything ever seen. And like any good thriller, much of that heart pounding success comes courtesy of a great villain.
J.K. Simmons (whom you may know as the voice of the yellow M&M and Juno’s sarcastic yet supportive father in Juno) is worthy of the highest acting praise for his turn as Terence Fletcher. What could have been a one-note, angry performance is instead a textured character study of a lonely man who devotes his life to the transformative power of music. He’s scary, of course, incredibly so. Fletcher’s presence on screen is enough to make us hold our breath. But he’s still a person, and as horror films have taught us, it’s the human part of monsters that makes them the most dangerous.
The rest of the cast is wonderful as well. Miles Teller plays every moment of Andrew’s journey with conviction. He paints a compelling portrait of young artists: desperately cool on the surface but boiling within. Melissa Benoist is captivating and utterly believable in her (too few) scenes as his girlfriend, and Paul Reiser makes a lovable and welcome comeback as Andrew’s father and only true friend.
Whiplash is rated R for strong language and is now available on DVD and at Redbox.