I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t very many great movies about music anymore. Sure, we get the odd biopic now and again, but even more rarely do we see original stories about people fueled by one of the most encompassing passions known to man. Whiplash seems to be aware of this, and wants to give us a film worth all the ones we may have missed put together and, my god, it’s a beautiful thing.
Whiplash centers on Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first year drumming student at Shaffer with an obsessive personality pointed towards being one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. After seemingly befriending Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the head of the musical conservatory, Andrew joins up expecting to learn some new tunes, and hopefully make lead fairly soon. However, it turns out that Fletcher is an absolute firecracker of a teacher, to a borderline abusive degree, and he is willing to go beyond the bounds of morality to push Andrew to a level even he didn’t think possible, which naturally takes a physical and phycological toll on Andrew.
When this film premiered at the Sundance film festival in January, it consumed absolutely all the buzz. Richard Linklater be damned, this was the must see independent film of the year. While I was certainly excited by this, not only because of the premise, but because Teller and Simmons are two of my favorite actors working today, I tried to keep my expectations fairly out of the hype. As it turns out, there was no need for that. Whiplash is one of the most exciting, stirring films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing all year. It’s a movie that not only lives up to it’s reputation, but surpasses it.
I’ve heard this movie described as ‘The Karate Kid’ with music, and while that definitely downplays the intensity, it’s a very apt description indeed. This is not a movie about people kvetching about how music makes them feel, or the magic that happens when they go on stage, but a story of people nearly killing themselves to perfect their craft. Both Andrew and Fletcher are both so incredibly set in their ways, and as such, the clash between the two of them is simply incredible to watch, with the most tense rehearsal scenes you’ll ever see in a movie.
Both of our leads go all in here, and are absolutely incredible. I’ve been convinced for a while that we have a major player in Miles Teller, and here he extinguishes any doubt about that. Not only does he completely deliver in the emotional department, but he finds plenty of moments for wry, cutthroat humor within his character’s calculating personality, bringing a whole lot of depth to what could have been a very one note character. Also, he enslaves himself to an insane degree to the physical aspects of the role. A drummer since about fifteen years old, Teller is the one preforming the whole time here, and because of the sheer intensity of what he’s playing, you see every drop of sweat and blood (some of which is actual blood) pouring out of him. Simmons is equally fantastic, extending his fiery rage to a point that would make J Jonah Jameson cry. However, he’s not relegated to exclusively being a stock villain, with plenty of warmer moments that bring out the humanity in him. It’s clear that despite his near sociopathic methods, he genuinely believes in Andrew, and wants to bring out the best in him. Both roles are perhaps the best performances of Teller and Simmons’ careers, and I’ll be shocked if we don’t see Oscar nominations for them.
Second time writer/director Damien Chazelle (who adapted this from a short he made) does not see this as a drama, but an action movie. He knows exactly when to move, and station the camera, capturing both the the deep focus, and crazed madness Andrew is expressing. Beyond that, the pace here is just perfect, with very little filler keeping us from what we want to see. If this were a longer, more extraneous film, all I would have wanted would be to go back to that rehearsal room, and Chazelle understands this, making a film that isn’t mediocre at having one hundred story lines but exceptional at having one.
Even so, there is still a little bit of nonsense going on. Melissa Benoist has a fairly small role as a movie theater worker who Andrew starts dating, and ultimately her story has very little to bare on the rest of the film, not to mention, she’s fairly bland and never really given the chance to be anything other than just a love interest. Fortunately, the pace is still razor sharp, and it never undercuts things too much.
By the end of this film, I was more excited and awake than I was watching any action movie this year. That is what ultimately defines Whiplash. It’s a film that utterly embraces a profession many people think is strictly serene, and throws the conviction, and maddening processes right in their faces. Beyond that, you will root for Andrew more than any generic Texan in any sports movie ever, and it will make the crowd you watch it with cheer as if they are at a real concert. It’s one of the year’s very best.