A pair of titanic performances puts the electrifying WHIPLASH in pole position for my favorite film of the year.
There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.”
Recall a time in your life when you were truly driven to achieve something. Maybe you got it; maybe you failed; maybe you became discouraged along the way. Maybe you became a teacher instead. (Speaking as a teacher, this is at least half-true in my case.) How much were you willing to push yourself, and to sacrifice? How much were you willing to be pushed? Because I can almost guarantee neither you nor I were nearly as determined in our passions as Andrew Neyman. A first-year student at (the fictional) Shaffer Conservatory, which is widely regarded as the top music school in the country, Andrew wants to not only be great, but be one of the the greats.
He’s a jazz drummer, who idolizes Buddy Rich and Jo Jones, and spends his nights obsessively practicing his rudiments and his patterns; his paradiddles and his double-time swing. Until, stepping out from the shadows like a ghoul, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) discovers him. Fletcher is the conductor of the Studio Band, the top band. Fletcher is legendary. Fletcher is also a mercurial, manipulative, tyrannical force of nature. He insults Andrew at their first meeting, leading Andrew to think he’s blown his one chance to impress Fletcher, but this is only the beginning of their relationship: a teacher and student Pas de Deux with as many twists and turns as the rollicking Hank Levy tune that gives the film its name.
Whiplash is written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a 29-year-old wunderkind with a musical background — his debut feature, Guy & Madeline on a Park Bench, was a well-received, low-budget, black & white romance about a trumpeter. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for this year’s Grand Piano, an entertaining but more conventional thriller, also about a musician. But even as talented as Chazelle clearly is, Whiplash (which won both Jury and Audience awards at Sundance) hits like a bolt of lightning. It’s about obsession, artistry, sacrifice, and life at the nexus of “good” and “great.” Any music school grad can tell you their school is cutthroat — but you’ve never seen it like this, where guys play until their hands bleed and sweat pours from their brows, and with a rooted paranoia that the moment they drop the ball (or the beat), they will be replaced.
In Terence Fletcher, Chazelle and Simmons have created an all-time movie villain: his skin taut over his gleaming bald head, the deep-set wrinkles in his face that can seem paternal one moment and horrifyingly psychotic the next. Fletcher is a demon, a raving madman. He browbeats and belittles and slings vulgarities like they’re his native language; he would rather send a trombonist out crying for not knowing whether or not he was in tune than cut the guy who was actually out of tune. For Andrew, the freshman who has been plucked from the “Junior Varsity” band to sit as an alternate with the big boys, it’s a life-changing opportunity, a dream…and the beginning of a nightmare.
“Not my tempo,” Fletcher tells him in that first rehearsal, as he has told (and will continue to tell) many others. “Just relax; let’s try it again.” But ten seconds later, after Fletcher calls a halt like he’s crushing a hummingbird in mid-air, Andrew’s getting a chair flung at his head. “Were you rushing, or were you dragging?” Andrew doesn’t know. Fletcher slaps him, and asks again. This continues for an agonizingly long time. But despite this ritual humiliation — as the other musicians sit quietly with their heads down, having long accepted that this is the price for being in Fletcher’s band — Andrew isn’t ready to quit; instead, he pushes himself harder, locking horns with Fletcher over and over and over again. Every victory is short-lived; every defeat would be enough to send 99% of us home looking to change careers. But Andrew keeps coming, all the more determined to earn his teacher’s approval.
Simmons (who, it’s easy to forget between State Farm commercials, first broke out as the malevolent Vern Schillinger on HBO’s prison drama Oz) is locked in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and rightfully so. (He may even win.) But it’s Miles Teller who has the far harder job — not only going toe-to-toe with Simmons in psychological nuclear warfare, but absolutely killing it on the skins. Teller has been a drummer since he was fifteen, and practiced four hours a day for weeks in preparation for the role. He says that some of the blood that splatters the kit is actually his, and I believe him. This is fiendishly difficult stuff, especially with Simmons pacing around him like a jungle cat. That infamous double-time swing that forms the foundation of the jazz standard “Caravan” is played at an impossible speed (I know, because I’ve tried it.)
But Teller — best known to this point for teen films Divergent and The Spectacular Now — rises to the challenge. (That he has already been cast as Mr. Fantastic in Hollywood’s perpetual superhero machine bodes well for his financial future, at least.) The deeper Andrew gets into this world, the more tunnel-visioned he becomes; when he first makes the band, he’s on enough of a high to ask out a girl he’s been crushing on — but weeks later, he’s coldly dumping her so he can give every waking moment to his craft. He has a good relationship with his dad (Paul Reiser, all easy naturalism), but finds in Fletcher the kind of drill sergeant who will push him beyond his limits.
Yet the central question at the heart of Whiplash is: Is it worth it? Even if Andrew becomes as great as he hopes to be, is it worth all of the emotional carnage, all of the scarring Fletcher has inflicted on him? Fletcher often tells the apocryphal story about saxophonist Charlie Parker, who as a teenager was nearly decapitated when Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him. Parker vowed to come back a better player, and he did. But Charlie Parker is one in a million, and Fletcher has spent his entire career looking for the next one, scorching the earth, leaving a wreckage of shattered souls in his wake. Nevertheless, he is adamant that his methods are right, whatever the cost — like Mr. Glass in Unbreakable, his destroying of hundreds is justified (in his mind) to find the one. And despite the hell Fletcher puts him through, Andrew kind of agrees, at least for a while. And then things get truly interesting.
With whip-crack editing (from Tom Cross) that matches the tempo and dynamics of the sensational soundtrack, Chazelle ratchets up the tension, writing himself into corners and back out, shucking and diving into a show-stopping climax more thrilling than any action movie I’ve seen in years. When it was over, it was hard to stop trembling. Whiplash is a live wire of a movie — exhilarating from start to finish, one of the best music films I’ve ever seen, and without a doubt the best film I’ve seen in 2014. It’s Full Metal Drumstick.
Grade: A+ (Yep.)