From the very opening shot, as the camera tracks forward towards our young drummer, “Whiplash” thrusts the audience right into its world without any formal introductions. When an imposing figure enters the space and tests the young man’s skill, his comments quickly become sarcastic and critical, and the drummer is left to question whether he blew it or not.
The young man is aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and the imposing figure is Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a notoriously harsh but well-respected, world-renowned music teacher at the (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music. We soon learn that Fletcher’s harsh dismissal featured in the opening scene was no fluke; it’s all a part of his teaching style. As the film progresses, we get an in-depth look at the complicated relationship between the student and his teacher and learn what it takes to become the best at something.
“Whiplash” is a simple and familiar story elevated by two spectacular performances and the sheer energy and immediacy of the film’s editing. The camerawork is lively and the way the film is cut to the beat of its own drum (quite literally) essentially screams at the audience that its not to be ignored. The tension between Fletcher and Andrew throughout is expertly handled; we aren’t quite sure whether to praise Fletcher’s approach or chastise him for it.
By the end credits, you’ll want to stand up and cheer, and the packed house I saw it with at Regal Union Square on a Sunday night did just that — almost everyone in the theatre stuck around through the end credits to give the film a proper ovation.
J.K. Simmons has always been one of my favourite character actors, and it’s amazing to see him finally step into such a commanding leading role. As soon as he steps into a scene, all eyes would be on him if they weren’t glued to the floor in fear. His on-screen presence is the very definition of intense, yet there are still tons of laughs to be had via his unorthodox MO. I can only picture one or two scenes in the entire film where he’s not screaming horrible insults at Andrew or one of his bandmates, but it’s all for the greater good. Simmons is vicious, unapologetic, inspiring and effortlessly hilarious all at once in the role, and it has Oscar gold written all over it.
I’ve been a huge fan of Miles Teller ever since 20120’s “Rabbit Hole” and he completely blew me away in last year’s “The Spectacular Now.” “Whiplash” gives Teller his best shot at stretching his proverbial muscles yet, and he delivers. His performance as Andrew is everything it needs to be as he toes the line between confidence and total insecurity. His artistic drive shows through, and when Andrew tells his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend that he must leave her because he wants to be “one of the greats” and she will only slow him down, we believe him. While he certainly gets fed up with Fletcher’s methods, it doesn’t take him long to realise that Fletcher is only pushing him so hard because he wants him to succeed. It’s a brave performance that is the best of his young career, proving that this is just the beginning for Teller.
Early on in the film, Fletcher tells the story of legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker and how Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at his head when he made a mistake, nearly decapitating him. Fletcher’s entire demeanor seems to be a direct response to this legend, as he hurls furniture, violently curses and otherwise gets into his student’s heads through borderline inappropriate means.
The audience is left to ponder what makes somebody a master of their craft; is it inherent, or do barbaric techniques like those employed by Fletcher really make the man? While the question is up to the audience to answer, it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling anything but inspired and ready to take on the world.
The most impressive thing about “Whiplash” is that it takes a story that could have been boring (an exploration of the relationship between mentor and mentee) and makes it one of the most intense, compelling, and visceral experiences of the year. Simmons, Teller and director Damien Chazelle have crafted something special that has to be seen to be believed.
“Whiplash” is now playing in limited release and expands October 17th.
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