Jazz music and psychology create a furious cinematic swell in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” a striking breakthrough effort that will have toes tapping and pulses racing. Centered on a 19-year-old aspiring Jazz drummer pushed to his limits for better and for worse (usually worse) by a merciless instructor, “Whiplash” tells a simple story of how far one’s willing to go for their dream, and what inspires and motivates greatness.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a first year student at a music conservatory with a clear-cut dream: become the next great jazz drummer. His talent catches the eye of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) the conductor of the school’s revered studio band, a no-nonsense teacher who pushes his students to their breaking point through cursing, screaming and insulting them, and he particularly enjoys directing his questionable tactics toward Andrew.
By and large, Fletcher’s methods inspire Andrew to push himself, but not without instilling a certain fear and anger in both him and the audience. The tension becomes powerfully thick whenever the two are in the same scene and any time Andrew makes the slightest mistake that will certainly invoke Fletcher’s wrath, it’s a gasp-worthy “oh crap” moment. Chazelle easily gets the audience under his finger in this way, but it’s Simmons who really gives him that power.
Simmons has been a beloved character actor for more than a decade, in large part due to his mouth and exceptional line delivery. The role of Fletcher plays to these strengths while allowing him to access a more sinister and dramatic side. In other words, when he rips off a comic insult in this film, you’re also laughing out of nervousness. He’s every strict, terrifying, bigoted, foul-mouthed teacher, instructor, coach or boss you’ve ever had (or that’s ever been on screen) rolled into one and that has a profound influence on the film’s suspense.
Interestingly, executive producer Jason Reitman (director of “Up in the Air” and “Juno”) has a lot of influence too, and that goes beyond that he likely recruited Simmons for the project. Chazelle likes to use a lot of sequence shots (such as all the student musicians opening their instrument cases one after the other) to create a rhythm to the film, one of Reitman’s hallmarks. That said, it should by no means diminish the work Chazelle has done. He balances this with a lot of other techniques (the opening shot, for example, is a long take) and weaved together the film takes on the characteristics of a carefully orchestrated piece of music.
Music has always played a crucial role in the creation of cinematic suspense, so a suspenseful film about music naturally has to take this relationship to another level. That’s where the focus on percussion makes a difference. There’s the obvious piece in that the drums are the pulse of the band, so the connection to our own physical response to the film is apparent. Also, and maybe slightly less obviously, there’s a lot happening visually, so it’s much easier to convey the intensity on film. Chazelle films Teller playing from just about every possible angle and distance, which ought to tell you that Teller’s own drum skills were definitely put to the test. The suspense also impacts jazz standards “Whiplash” and “Caravan” and other pieces heard in the film, making them infinitely more gripping because of what’s at stake for the characters.
A surprising third act twist takes the story to another level and elevates a script that otherwise might’ve gotten too satisfied with simply highlighting the moral dilemma Fletcher and Andrew pose. There are weaker components too like a side plot involving a love interest (Melissa Benoist of “Glee”) and a little stuff with Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) and extended family, but they help break up the intensity and also show that Andrew’s pursuit of greatness doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“Whiplash” works by being both niche (one small story taking place in the little-seen world of competitive collegiate jazz) and yet universal, while employing a multitude of sensory components both visual and aural to creating an engaging, accessible and entertaining film. Chazelle will surely have a number of encore performances to follow, while giving us an all-time great one from Simmons.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons