Musical devotion is tested to the limit in Whiplash, separating the dreamers from the die-hard players. Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash has earned a streak of critical praise for its originality and performances, underscored even further that this is director and writer Damien Chazelle’s debut feature. Whiplash is the sort of picture most filmmakers are lucky to achieve once in a lifetime, and Chazelle’s work demonstrates him to be a master of creative storytelling. Whiplash is white-hot electric, often times full of black humor, other times truly terrifying, themes not associated to drumming but couldn’t fit better in Chazelle’s powerful, dramatic story.
While it is centered on a student-teacher relationship, Whiplash is not overly sentimental in the slightest, a quality that pertains to most pictures of the genre. The film’s protagonist, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a nineteen-year-old Shaffer student, wants to take his musical skills to the next limit, hoping to become associated with the very best. A jazz drummer inspired by legends such as Charlie Parker, Andrew finds guidance under the infamous Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a ruthless teacher so obsessed with achieving perfection that the slightest mistake or drift from the rhythm will send him into an angry and abusive verbal assault. After Fletcher admits him into his exclusive honors band, Andrew faces a rigorous, intense workout that rivals Sergeant Hartman’s military training in Full Metal Jacket.
The major question Chazelle poses onto the audience is whether Fletcher’s demanding methods are worthy of merit or not. While Fletcher argues his teaching helps students achieve perfectionism and better the chances for the next Louis Armstrong or Jo Jones, his profane rants don’t just pertain to musical ability but personal insults, including taunting Andrew for being abandoned by his mother. Fletcher’s controlling nature isn’t just cruel, it’s psychotic, pushing his band past their physical and mental capabilities.
Focusing on Andrew’s devotion as well as his building anxiety, Whiplash is as tense and brutal as Caché. Chazelle does not hold back on any moment of quiet ease, yet does not suffer from excessive or overdone drama. Rather, Whiplash feels completely natural and realistic. Its rich detail of musical fact and depiction of the contemporary jazz scene could alone merit its own documentary and the rich music would inspire a great jazz soundtrack. With the addition of its character-rich story, Whiplash is hugely complex, a movie that is as deep and dark as the work of Kubrick. With his harrowing tone, it’s almost unbelievable that this is Chazelle’s first feature picture; his mastery of the camera and use of such complex themes show a promising career in the future.
The highlight of Whiplash though is the performances by J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Simmons has always been a strong and consistent actor, but his performance as Fletcher is easily the best in his career. Even at Fletcher’s most maniacal moments, Simmons’ performance never appears as flamboyant or over-the-top, work of a true talent. Teller as well is incredibly convincing in his role as Andrew, an idealist who never lets anything interfere with his goals. His passionate performance is as good as Ellar Coltrane’s turn as Mason in Boyhood.
Startling and wildly exhilarating, Whiplash never loses its grip, resulting in a tight and engrossing picture that will entertain even those uninterested in jazz.