by Jordan Canahai
In the long tradition of music films about brilliant young prodigies that push themselves to the brink of madness perfecting their art, from the 1943 Michel Powell/Emeric Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes, to Milos Foreman’s Amadeus and more recent fare like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, we can now add Whiplash, the extraordinary new film from writer/director Damien Chazelle, to that list. It centers on Andrew (Miles Teller), a bright, promising jazz drummer at a prestigious New York City school for the arts who falls under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a renowned teacher notorious for pushing his students to extremes in the name of turning them into world-class musicians.
Fletcher runs his classroom like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, expecting nothing less than the best from his pupils—berating, insulting, and otherwise being the world’s biggest hard-ass towards them until he’s satisfied with the results. In seemingly no time, the mild-mannered Andrew is forgoing any semblance of a social life, spending his days and nights constantly practicing, moving his mattress into his bedroom, his hands chaffed and bloodied from non-stop drumming, determined to be the next Buddy Rich.
Teller shines in the lead role of Andrew, utilizing the same natural charm displayed in last year’s star-making The Spectacular Now while showcasing new depths as an actor as he takes on the physically-demanding and emotionally draining scenes required of him—but the true breakout star is Simmons. Always a reliable character actor, his turn as Fletcher is arguably the greatest of his long career; intense, darkly comic, and surprisingly empathetic, his whole performance is perfectly tuned to the rhythm of the film, alternately calm and understated while giving way to spasms of rage (a scene where he somberly shares some kind words about a recently deceased former student to his class is quite moving, though in less than a few moments of screen time he’s throwing a chair at our central character’s head demanding he get in tempo).
If Whiplash makes one glaring misstep, it’s in the handling of the romantic subplot, involving Andrew’s girlfriend (the charming Mellisa Benoist of Glee.) Despite her and Teller doing their best to make the most of their few scenes together, the screenplay makes little use of her character, requiring her only as the clichéd love interest who’s nice, unassuming, and exists only to provide a foil to Andrew and remind the audience how ambitious he is in comparison.
Far more effective at highlighting the alienating effect of Andrew’s obsession on his personal life is his relationship with his loving father (Paul Reiser, in another of the film’s strong supporting turns) portrayed as a decent guy who’s torn between supporting his son’s dream while still wanting what’s best for him, never understanding the lengths he’s going to to please Fletcher. An awkward dinner scene involving him, Andrew, and the rest of the family, in which Andrew’s musical accomplishments go unsung by his relatives, stands out far more memorably than any of the girlfriend scenes.
Making his major directorial debut, writer/director Chazelle displays remarkable confidence for a young filmmaker. Aided by editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharon Meir, his work allows the audience to feel the desperation that Andrew and Fletcher experience as they strive for perfection. The film builds from one staccato movement to another towards its heart-pounding climax. In the end, Whiplash proves to be a film composed with the same fluid rhythms and whiz-bang aplomb showcased by its virtuoso musicians.
Watch the trailer for Whiplash
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