Some people are content simply doing things. Work, art, music. The act alone justifies the time spent before the next thing comes along that captures their interest and affection. But for others, the idea of contentment is a foreign concept left behind in the urgent march forward to be the absolute best. These are the greats, the ones the rest of us know by name or by the images/sounds they create.
Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be one of those greats. His focus is drumming, jazz drumming in particular, and his immediate goal is to catch the ear of the Schaffer Music Academy’s legendary professor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The man makes and breaks musicians, but his method of channeling R. Lee Ermey’s meaner cousin threatens to destroy Andrew’s dream before it even begins.
Whiplash is a percussive thriller that drops viewers into the middle of an obsession, one that assaults the eyes and ears with a painful beauty and the occasional misstep before reaching an incredibly invigorating finale. Equal parts suspense and musical drama, the film is a blistering experience.
Andrew’s entry into Fletcher’s class immediately puts him at odds with the band’s existing drummer. The teacher plays the two off of each other with acts of emotional cruelty, but that’s his style. The other members are equal victims of his foul taunts and insults, but it’s because Fletcher sees that as necessary fuel to their creative fire. Disagreement means you just don’t want greatness bad enough.
Outside distractions come and go, from family to a hopeful girlfriend, but Andrew struggles to remain pure and as hardcore as he needs to be. To an outsider or to someone who hasn’t shared a similar drive, the 19 year old’s actions seem unhealthy and a sign of potential mental illness.
And maybe they’re right. Most of us will never reach that level of conviction and willingness to tune out the world in search of perfection. It hurts to watch Andrew, and by extension Teller, in action at times, but it also mesmerizes with its precision and power. His rapid-fire drumming leads to blisters, bleeding and pools of sweat collecting in his clothing and across the drum kit, but the sounds, the music he creates, are a salve for his pain as well as ours.
The only interruption in the film’s building intensity comes around the midpoint when writer/director Damien Chazelle‘s script clumsily tries to force a dramatic narrative where a naturally beautiful one already existed. It’s a major hiccup, big enough to derail the film’s rhythmic power, but something of a minor miracle happens in the final 20 minutes or so. Just as Andrew has been forced to dig deep and find pockets of strength and resilience, the final scene roars to life, locks your eyes and holds your breath with triumphant wonder.
The three constants here are the music, Teller, and Simmons. The film is near constant in its music and noises, live or as part of some playback, and while it highlights the very rare moments of silence it also prepares you for the music that really matters.
Teller, who played the instrument earlier in his life, is incredibly convincing playing amped up jazz drums. His talent and dedication are visible in his motions and on his face, and while he does good work elsewhere in the film he’s a force of nature behind his kit and demands your recognition and respect. Simmons shows a different kind of intensity with his performance, and while he earns laughs through a never-ending rainbow of profanity and callousness, he also reveals his character’s truth between the slurs.
Whiplash is somewhat of a revelation in both its lead actors and in its ability to overcome a troublesome second act, and like many of the best films it also leaves audiences talking and debating the merits of its conclusion.
The Upside: The music is constant and addictive; Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both give their most intense and enthralling performances.
The Downside: Middle sags with repetition and the intrusion of artificial “story.”
On the Side: Damien Chazelle also wrote the recent and thematically similar piano thriller, Grand Piano. That one though is played heavily for laughs.