WHIPLASH Review: Yeah, But Look at the Results
One of my favorite childhood memories is the sound of my Babcia’s choir. They sang in Ukrainian, a language I (sadly) never learned, but despite that, just the sound of the collective – the harmony, the power – filled the enormous church and made me feel good. On occasion, I would go to choir practice with Babcia after mass. My only memories of those experiences involve the choir director screaming at his singers again and again, cutting them off and making them start over, for hours on end or until his voice was shot.
I didn’t understand it then but I’ve come to since. His high demand for perfection resulted in an amazing sound – a sound I remember and remember loving so much. That high demand/high reward approach is at the core of Whiplash.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer and student at a prestigious music conservatory. Andrew’s goal is not to one day be great; his goal is to one day be one of the greats. There is a clear distinction, and Andrew knows it well. Being a student at the school is the first step towards getting there, and he gets his next big chance when he is invited to be a member of Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) band. Fletcher is a teacher at the school with two distinct reputations.
One reputation is that of recognizing great talent. The school only accepts the best of the best, and Fletcher only works with the best of those. The other reputation, though, is one of a cruel, sometimes abusive, teacher – one who berates his students with profanity- and epithet-laced tirades, all in an effort to bring out their best. The results of the former reputation mask well the sins of the latter.
Andrew’s first role in Fletcher’s band is that of Alternate – a second-string drummer relegated to turning the sheet music pages of the Core drummer. Hard work and a little luck change that, but being Core brings another level of demand from Fletcher that will either drive Andrew to greatness or drive him to insanity.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle crafts and executes something electrifying in Whiplash. The film is a simultaneously frenetic and fluid look at a familiar story, but Chazelle turns that story on its head with the first crash of Andrew’s cymbal.
The story is that of the obsession for perfection and the high price of greatness. This is a tale usually told against the backdrop of athletics, where screaming is part of everyday communication, where berating a player is supposed to build character, and where “leaving it all on the field” typically involves blood loss. Chazelle takes these clichés off the field of play and injects them into … a music conservatory? Indeed, and to great affect. Because such extreme behavior occurs in a place traditionally regarded as calm and reserved makes the behavior that much more intense.
Dishing it out in the music room and leaving it all on the drum kit both rely heavily on the strength of the film’s co-leads, and those co-leads deliver, giving equally amazing yet wildly diverse performances.
The intimidation – and it is intimidating – is doled out with unstoppable might from Simmons. Fletcher’s superiority is felt in his first scene. Andrew is alone and practicing drums when Fletcher confronts him – not screaming, just being imposing. It’s their first meeting. The teacher verbally vivisects the student efficiently and effectively, leaving Andrew to wonder if everything he has been working towards for 19 years has been turned to dust in 90 seconds. From that point forward, Fletcher’s intensity, in the hands of Simmons and like a Big Band Jazz chart, rises and falls in waves of seething emotional rage and quiet, psychological cruelty. Fletcher is more than a music teacher – he is a surgeon and a butcher and he knows when to use which instrument to get the most out of his musicians – especially Andrew.
As Andrew, Teller is revelatory. Unlike most tales of young athletes on the brink of greatness, there is no swagger to Andrew, no cocksure chip on his shoulder that needs to be knocked off before he can rise to be a better player. Nor, however, is there humility. Teller creates Andrew as a painfully unassuming young man who knows he has the skills, but lacks that something extra to get him where he wants to be. (His being a drummer makes sense, really; he’s hiding behind that kit and doing the workman’s work – keeping the beat – and letting the guys up front get the attention.)
Andrew evolves, though. He becomes more confident in what he can do and what he wants to be, he becomes driven to the point of being singularly focused, and he even allows for the rare moment of arrogance, as evidenced by his devastating (Fletcher-like) commentary on his cousin’s pursuits in the (Division III) college football ranks. Other than that, he keeps it all in check because he isn’t there … yet.
This is the Miles Teller The Spectacular Now teased us with. This is the Miles Teller that Miles Teller needs to be.
Chazelle’s master stroke is that while he takes the story off the athletic field, he leaves the athleticism in it – even the sweat, and especially the blood. Fletcher pushes Andrew to the point that the young drummer bleeds from blistered hands and busted knuckles, leaving stains on snares and droplets on cymbals like a violent crime has just taken place. And while Teller’s performance earns the sweat, he isn’t the only one flexing his physicality.
Simmons is like a cobra, lithe and sinewy, as he moves around the room listening to – and stopping and starting and stopping and starting – the music, until he’s in Andrews face with fangs bared and ready to consume the boy for being off rhythm so slightly, only someone of Fletcher’s calibre could hear it.
The film’s only weak point involves a romantic interest for Andrew. As his confidence increases, Andrew gets up the nerve to ask movie theater employee Nicole (Melissa Benoist) on a date. She says yes, a romance blossoms, but the romance must end because it takes a way from Andrew’s focus on being one of the greats. In a film that does something different with other clichés, it sticks to the old playbook here, which adds nothing of value to the film and at times gets in the way.
With a fabulous jazz score, incredible direction from Chazelle, and precision editing from Tom Cross (editing that the film lives and dies with, and oh how it lives), Whiplash is like nothing I have seen before. The title might refer to one of the songs from the film, but as the closing credits roll, it isn’t surprising I grabbed the back of my neck and wondered what hit me.