Dir: Damien Chazelle
J.K. Simmons’ wonderfully profane and shockingly abusive instructor Terrence Fletcher is an antagonist for the ages in Damien Chazelle’s rollicking sophomore feature Whiplash. A streamlined hybrid of a thriller and coming-of-age tale, Whiplash presents a bare-knuckle and bruised view of that most blood thirsty of all collegiate activities – playing in a jazz ensemble. Ostensibly about jazz drumming, the film probes the depths that devoted students must plumb in order to be one of “the greats” and the teachers that push them to achieve those heights.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) is Andrew Neiman, an ambitious drumming student at the NY-based Schaffer Conservatory. Practicing late one night, his drumming catches the ear of notorious instructor Terrence Fletcher. Fletcher makes the unusual call to give Andrew, usually an alternative in the second-string jazz band, a shot at playing in his prestigious group, the school’s top jazz collective. Andrew is understandably thrilled and Fletcher even takes him aside when he struggles during the audition and provides some paternal advice. What happens next reveals the true nature of Fletcher’s perfectionism and unorthodox methods. Fletcher continually tells Andrew he’s either rushing or dragging in terms of his timing, and the pressure slowly builds until it’s released in a torrent of vicious invective that rivals the best that R. Lee Ermey dished out in Full Metal Jacket. And so begins a game of emotional brinkmanship during which Fletcher will seek to drive Andrew to be one of the best jazz drummers in America or destroy him in the process.
Famed jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker is often used as a touchpoint through Whiplash to justify the rigors of trying to be exceptional. As the anecdote goes, Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head and was booed off stage early in his career. Instead of packing it in, he poured his heart and soul into his craft and came back a year later, wowing the same crowd and becoming the jazz legend “Bird” in the process. Do the ends justify the means? Personable Andrew alienates his loving dad and gives up a burgeoning romantic relationship to hone his craft and remain in Fletcher’s good graces. Chazelle wisely doesn’t pass judgment on these choices and the usual beats found in similar films are skipped in favour of a more idiosyncratic story.
Chazelle, a former jazz drummer himself, brings autobiographical details to the fore and shoots the many musical sequences with a knowing and inventive eye, transforming them into riveting action. There’s immediateness and physicality here that brings homes the often brutal nature of drumming; no wonder all the great drummers are crazy. Andrew drums until his knuckles bleed and then drums some more. The mercurial Fletcher gives praise one moment then throws a music stand at a student’s head the next. Shot through with a sickly yellow palette that evokes late nights spent under fluorescent lights in a basement, Whiplash make you feel the work and effort that go into becoming great.
It’s also funny as hell. Teller brings smirking charm and swaggering confidence to Andrew, but can still be vulnerable when needed. J.K. Simmons, previously best known as Spiderman nemesis J.Jonah Jameson or the conflicted skinhead Schillinger in HBO’s Oz, is scary good as Fletcher. His verbal barbs are hilarious while eviscerating his students to the bone, and there’s a maniacal glee that Simmons brings to the role while still keeping the character grounded in reality. If Fletcher were simply an unrepentant asshole that might make for some funny scenes but wouldn’t be emotionally involving. Thankfully the script by Chazelle paints in shades of grey, and gives dimension to Fletcher and Andrew in equal measure. Andrew is trying to make up for his father’s perceived failures; Fletcher has a history with previous students who achieved greatness or flamed out spectacularly while trying. There is a large sense of stakes in this small story.
Whiplash will likely never reach the audience that big-budget blockbusters have, but if there was a chance it did then you might hear the name Terrence Fletcher in the same breath as Hans Gruber and Darth Vader when discussing the all-time great movie villains. It stands on its own two feet as a tight thriller that looks at discipline versus natural ability, and how much sacrifice must be made to reach the top. Shot through with dark humour and an unforgettable performance from Simmons, Whiplash stirs the blood and reaches such a feverish and rousing climax that you can’t but help cheer. Do what you must and see this movie.