It’s rare that a film leaves me as emotionally drained and left with a genuine sense of “wow” as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which I saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax. I don’t know if Whiplash is a great film but there’s no doubt in my mind it's a visceral experience that stayed with me hours after the film ended. If you still believe that films can shock and hit you right in the stomach, then go see this film when it’s released this October.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan who becomes a player in the studio band run by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). But Fletcher isn’t merely a conductor. He’s a tyrant who pushes his students beyond their limits, verbally abusing them and even threatening physical violence . Andrew is soon caught in a whirlpool of obsession. An obsession with greatness, whatever the cost.
Not since R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has an authority figure been portrayed with such terrifying conviction. And Simmons truly is terrifying in this film. You don’t want to be in a room with this guy when he explodes. And even when he’s not verbally abusing his student, he’s so intimidating that the film becomes more suspenseful than most thrillers. Even if the scenario of a music teacher essentially being a drill sergeant isn’t completely believable, I always believe Simmons.
In movies like this the bigger performance gets most of the attention. And while Simmons deserves his praise, Teller is also worthy of notice. In certain ways Teller has the more difficult role to play, needing to balance being a sympathetic protagonist and displaying Andrew’s crueler side. He breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he believes she’s preventing him from achieving greatness. And when he does call off the relationship he does so with so remorse. He’s also quite arrogant at a dinner get together with his family. Teller plays both sides of the character very well. I never hated Andrew but I didn’t always like him either. What I admire about the film is the dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher isn't black and white. Fletcher is black but Andrew is a shade of grey.
While these two men feel opposed on the film’s surface I think both Andrew and Fletcher need each other in a twisted kind of way. Andrew wants to be broken down an built back up by Fletcher. And Fletcher wants Andrew to be thick skinned enough to prove Fletcher’s philosophy- which he lays out near the film’s end- that "[t]here are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'" The only way to truly be great is if someone viscously criticizes you. Fletcher recounts how Charlie "Bird" Parker had a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones after messing up while playing with Jones. In Fletcher's view if that incident never happened Parker never would have become a legendary sax player. Even Andrew believes that Parker dying at 34 doesn't matter since Parker is still remembered for achievements.
The film takes on a “art imitates life” quality. Not only is the film is about pushing artists to the edge but Simmons and Teller had to sweat blood to make this film. Simmons has never been as ferocious as he is here and Teller gives a physically draining performance. Teller was already a drummer before shooting this film. There are sequences where Fletcher is driving Andrew to perfect his drumming. In these sequences Teller is committed to making the audience feel Andrew's exhaustion. Credit also goes to Teller’s stunt man and drumming instructor for performing some of the drumming.
While the film is very much about the two central performances, Chazelle’s direction and Tom Cross’ editing are also stellar. The climatic musical performance is cut to perfection and Chazelle makes us feel the sweat and drive of performance. Sharone Meir’s cinematography places the film in between reality and some kind of nightmare. And even though we don’t see much of the city in this film there’s something very “New York” about that brown and shadowy music room. It instantly reminds us of those images and sounds of the jazz greats. And those great artists populate the soundtrack as well.
There are some issues with the film however. Andrew’s relationship with Nicole it didn’t develop enough before Andrew breaks it off. I like Benoist’s natural and sweet performance but I wonder if the film needed the subplot at all. There are also moments when Fletcher comes across as too one-note of a character. Even a scene where Fletcher mourns over a former student- in retrospect after a certain plot point- feels like just another way for Fletcher to manipulate his students. But maybe the film is stronger because Fletcher is such an absolute and unrelenting character. I think that people will feel the film takes Fletcher’s side and believes in his ideology. I can’t speak for Chazelle- who also wrote the screenplay, based on his short film- and what he believes. I do think that Andrew eventually sides with Fletcher’s philosophy, even though he questions it. I like that the film is bold enough not to say “It’s okay. We don’t agree with what this guy believes.” It ends on a darker note, a perverted take on the inspirational final music performance we would see in another film.
Despite certain issues Whiplash is an expertly orchestrated film. Like a great musical performance it knows how to build and slow down. It completely washed over me. Whatever you think of Fletcher’s ideology- and whether the film agrees with him- the film itself achieves a kind of transcendence that we rarely see in movies these days.