PLOT: A jazz drummer (Teller) encounters an abusive conductor (Simmons) on his path to becoming the best.
WHO'S IT FOR? Movie fans who like exhilarating films.
The enemy of our potential is the fear of failure. It lingers on the blank papers or canvases that stare back at us, and restrains us to the what ifs of our goals. In Damien Chazelle’s jazz drumming thriller Whiplash, this horror is personified in the fortissimo presence of conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who invests his entire being into mercilessly challenging the ambition of his students. Chazelle’s previous work as screenwriter, Grand Piano, featured John Cusack as a sniper who threatened to kill a pianist if he played one false note; the life-or-death stakes are the same in Whiplash, in its primal presentation of rising against fear that threatens to destroy ambition.
The hero of Whiplash is Andrew (a raw Miles Teller), a jazz drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. Not long into the film, he is hand-picked by Fletcher to join the conductor’s competing jazz band, a prestigious lot that thrives on the reputation of perfection that Fletcher has set as a standard. Soon into Andrew’s first practice, when Fletcher hurls a chair at him for not keeping perfect tempo, the rookie drummer experiences the conductor in his infamous, monstrous form.
As he struggles to sustain his place in the band, Andrew’s passion to be the next Buddy Rich is put through an unpredictable psychological gauntlet that is sponsored by Fletcher’s unforgiving attitude. With only the seed of ambition to keep him from quitting, Andrew endeavors deep into his craft.
As Whiplash becomes the Rocky that musicians have long been owed, it is distinctly stripped of the expected plot elements that provide narrative support when underdog protagonists strive for greatness. A love interest is introduced and then intentionally dismissed, while Andrew’s life only has competitors, not friends. Andrew and Fletcher are more clashing entities than typical movie characters, with Andrew in particular a product of the story’s lean design; this drummer is a raw being that breathes and bleeds for the life source of focused ambition. Teller’s performance is a demonstration of Whiplash’s enormous physicality, and the way in which the film is so charged with such slick construction.
A man in black who conducts with the tensity of a drill instructor, Fletcher is a dreamer’s nightmare galvanized by the celebrated tough love of high school football coaches (and yes, bandleaders) who organize their team of budding amateurs with non-PC tyranny. Simmons articulates this villain’s massive presence with a definitive visceral nature, the versatility in his baritone intensity causing Fletcher to always command the moment, whether he is frightening his players, or in the third act, sharing a tale of abusive motivation that defines his mentality. The ferocity of Fletcher proves only an issue for Chazelle, who takes a more cartoonish route with his psychology in the third act regarding an uncharacteristically childish act of vengeance/inspiration. The final stroke of brilliance from Simmons is in maintaining the depth to this character even through such conceits, allowing Chazelle’s own imperfection leeway for forgiveness.
With such a focused narrative form, Whiplash also makes the center experience of creating music pulsate; it has a consuming physicality. Cinematically-inclined musician Chazelle aptly uses visuals to sophisticate its raw musician experience. Closeups used for faces a la John Cassavetes in Chazelle’s previous Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench now function to entrench viewers in the band pit, presenting dripping spit valves and grisly callouses in a way that film has rarely done before. Whiplash’s visual sense remains in awe of the music experience as well, with breathless passages like a rack focus onto Fletcher’s hands right before he conducts a piece of sheet music to life, or a shot that presents Andrew looking out into a black sea while standing on a spotlit stage, as if he and his drum set are about to enter a void.
The monument of Whiplash is its climax, a volcanic drum solo that celebrates the extraordinary experience of Chazelle’s drama, and the way in which it cinematically shares the intensity of instrumentation with ears both trained and untrained. With a surging denouement for a story about jazz band that could fire up a football team, Whiplash has its own sense of zeal. Defying the expected cinematic representations of physicality and basing its narrative solely on the struggle of a drummer's ambition, Chazelle's bold film affirms that the only way to silence the voice of failure is to become fearless.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10