Whiplash. 2014. Directed & Written by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, and Paul Reiser.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
★★★★★I think one of the most incredible things about Whiplash is the fact it captures the blood, sweat, and tears which go into the making of a true musician so accurately that it’s almost a little scary. In fact, with J.K Simmons’ performance this really becomes a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the beating heart of music. While most people only see the surface of musicians, Damien Chazelle opens up the doors and shows the world what it’s like behind them. Now, not all musicians go through such strenuous training – many famous rockstars would have you believe they’ve run the gamut, however, the studied musicians who have trained for years and years, who have literally bled and spent hours grinding themselves into dust just for that extra bit of practice to get ahead, they are the true masters. I’m not discounting what famous bands, et cetera, are doing (there are absolutely famous musicians who’ve gone the hard road of classical training) – I only mean that the real tough and uniquely talented individuals are those who went through the trenches.
Whiplash tells the story of a young drummer named Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who attends a very prestigious music school. There, he comes face to face with a fearsome, well-respected professor, Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). The two butt heads. Andrew wishes to be one of the greats. While Fletcher initially seems to give him a positive response, soon Andrew finds himself at the mercy of a merciless maniac consumed by only one thing – perfect music. Continuously the two clash to more and more unexpected results.
One of the most obvious things that impresses most people about the film is Miles Teller. Firstly, it’s incredible to know he played the drums. I mean, if you pay attention to the film for more than ten minutes you’ll obviously realize it’s him – very hard to hide anything the way Chazelle shot the film. But it’s still mind blowing. There are some really tough scenes in here. I can imagine some of the blood, and no doubt every last drop of the sweat, were all Teller; one hundred percent of the way. This is a performance where an actor really dives in. Not only pulling off a complex emotional character, but additionally playing the music of the film. Apparently, Teller has played drums since the age of 15, and took more intense lessons to prepare for the role. It shows.
He also certainly did a great job while not on the drums. His performance reflected a lot of what I’ve personally seen in musicians over the years. Myself, I’d never strived to be anything more than a decent musician who could play for fun. I grew up with an aunt and uncle who both have their Master’s Degree in music – both of whom taught me, in one form or another, over the years. I planned piano and trumpet for a long time, fairly well I might add, but not at a truly competitive level other than music festivals throughout grade school. I mention this because I’ve come across a lot of people such as Andrew Neiman while coming up. They are determined. Some times to a fault. However, I’ve always been fascinated with their determination. Trying not to ruin anything, I think it’s the finale which really brought me around to believing Teller did a fabulous job. You really see the determination, the pain, the anguish of Andrew in these moments. The ending is really beautiful. Overall, and for the character of Andrew himself.
The other undeniable aspect of Whiplash and what makes it so good is, of course, the always fascinating J.K Simmons. In him, the character of Terence Fletcher really comes alive and jumps out of the screen. I know he played this role in the short Chazelle did before getting the funding for the feature, so that certainly was good for Simmons as an actor; being able to live with a character more than just a small period of time while filming. Either way, I’m sure he could have pulled this off. He has a great knack for playing hard ass characters, however, I think this goes beyond that – Fletcher is a cruel, relentless savage who stops at nothing to secure the best performance possible from every musician under his eye. Again, while Andrew is a very real character to me, so is the character of Fletcher. I’ve known people who could really push the envelope, as far as what is or isn’t acceptable to say to a person in regards to conductors. Even my own uncle who has been conducting, writing, teaching musicians for several decades now – this coming from both his nephew and a former student – could be an asshole. This wasn’t because being an asshole got him any further. It was always in service of the overall performance. Not only him, but other band teachers I had in grade school were also intense. I’ve seen and heard some fairly foul stuff from these guys over the years. One of them actually smacked me on the top of my head lightly with a trumpet mouthpiece – if you’ve ever held one, you know it doesn’t take much to leave a nice goose egg on the top of a teenager’s skull. All that in mind, Simmons really pulled off a spectacularly villainous role. He’s probably one of the best film villains of the last decade, and this is purely a dramatic film about music. So, I really think the praise is deserved, as much as any other great performance from 2014 – if not more. A great actor who deserves the most recognition possible.
In the end, I really think the best thing for me about Whiplash is the fact I really didn’t know where this film was headed. For a while, I sort of thought this might end up being a really cheesy music movie because of where I thought the plot might go. Luckily, was I ever wrong. Especially in the last third of the film. I really didn’t expect things to take the turns they did. Without spoiling too much, I think Chazelle made some interesting, non-typical choices. In particular, the very end played extremely well. I was expecting the film to end on a certain note, and while it did end in similar fashion to what I imagined, there was a distinct lack of ham. What I mean is, I really thought Chazelle might fall into the trap of lesser films where they go for sentimental conclusions which make me feel forced. I don’t like to feel forced to say “oh that’s nice a happy ending”. Whiplash ends on what I believe is a positive note, but doesn’t jam any sappy finale moments down your throat. It’s actually really intense. I found myself wide-eyed and wondering how things were finally going to clue up. I was impressed once Chazelle finished the film in the way he did, and walked away feeling great.
I can honestly say this is a flawless drama. It’s a 5-star movie about music. There is no doubt. While some might try and say it does no service to music because it seems to say practice can make anyone great, this is absolutely not the case. At one point in the film we see Fletcher’s only moment of weakness: a young musician he moulded, who went on to be a fabulous musician, dies in a car accident. Later in the movie, he explains a few things to Andrew. Fletcher ends up mentioning that even though he tried his best he never really “had a Charlie Parker” – right there and then, even if you know already, you realize this is not about saying practice can make anyone into one of the greats. Even this student Fletcher thought was the best he’d ever produced was not who he deemed to be “a Charlie Parker“. The point is, Fletcher pushed people to go beyond what was expected of them. He never guaranteed anybody greatness – only the opportunity to learn the tools through which greatness might then be attainable. The message isn’t wrong, but certainly will be misinterpreted. You won’t be great just because you practice yet ultimately, no one can be good without practice, and certainly not great – this is the message.
I highly recommend everyone see this film once they get the chance. It’s a great movie about music with incredible performances, lots of jazz, a bit of psychological horror in a few scenes, and always, always tons of heart. I enjoyed this every step of the way, and it defied a lot of the expected moments I anticipated to see.