February 8, 2015 by Jason Seligson
How does one describe Whiplash? “It’s the best ‘band’ movie since Drumline,” a friend of mine jokingly told me. I mean, I guess that’s one way to pitch it, but I’d hate to draw comparisons between two films simply because they share a use of percussion instruments. We’ve all seen movies about musicians before, so what makes Whiplash so different, so compelling?
Whiplash honestly feels more like a psychological thriller than a movie about music. It tells the story of a young man named Andrew (Miles Teller) who is just starting his freshman year at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, and his militant, sociopathic teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The whole film lives and breathes in the scenes shared between these two characters. Fletcher and Andrew are two trains set for collision, even if the latter doesn’t know it. The brilliance of writer Damien Chazelle’s script is in how Andrew’s desire to be “one of the great” drummers plays right into Fletcher’s hands. He holds the power and he knows it, so he manipulates Andrew from the very beginning.
Not enough can be said of J.K. Simmons’ performance. If he doesn’t win the Oscar, there will truly be no justice in the filmmaking world. Even watching Simmons host SNL and shout at the cast during his monologue almost gave me chills. But I also don’t want to overlook the film’s breakout star: Miles Teller. Teller first impressed me in The Spectacular Now (a story with which I have a lot of conflicting feelings), but with Whiplash, he delivers a tour de force performance, one that rises far above any of his previous roles in dystopian franchises or cookie-cutter romantic comedies.
So yes, the film is more thrilling than most music-entric movies, but it’s also the most realistic depiction of a jazz band I’ve ever seen. It’s not the film you expect to see; by that, I mean, almost every second of performance is tense and complicated: in a word—unsmooth. Save for one quiet moment in a bar toward the end of the film (though the scene is anxiety-inducing for other reasons), the music is anything but calming. The beauty is in the precision of the musicians, and in all that they’re giving to the music. I never attended a private conservatory, but I have competed in high school band, and so I recognize, even to a small extent, the amount of work that goes into playing. Any fruit requires labor, even one as sweet-tasting (or sounding) as jazz. That labor includes blood, sweat, and tears. That’s what it takes to be one of the greats.
I want to quickly jump to one of my other favorite scenes in the film. After Andrew is kicked out of Shaffer, and Fletcher loses his job, the two meet at a bar, where Fletcher is performing. What’s so subtle yet striking about this scene is that when we finally see Fletcher play, we see he’s not magnificent. He’s good, but he’s no master. He’s a No. 2. All of this dovetails perfectly into the following scene, as the two share a fantastic dialogue about ethics and moral lines (which Fletcher says don’t exist). Fletcher is not the next Buddy Rich; he’s the guy who believes his destiny to find the next Buddy Rich.
Fletcher believes that there is no line too far to cross in his search for the next Buddy Rich, because in his mind, that person would never be intimidated or give up. This is the central struggle of the film, and it’s handled brilliantly. These two men basically fuel one another because they each hold the key to fulfilling the other’s life passion. Their paths don’t run parallel; they cross, and when they do, they ruin everything in their path. It’s mutually assured destruction: both men pursue their respective beliefs so furiously that destruction is not just a likely outcome, it’s guaranteed.
Speaking of nonexistent boundaries, there’s only one scene in which Fletcher appears to let his guard down and show some humanity—when he comes to class to report the death of a former student. “I just wanted you to know he was a beautiful player,” he tells the class. This is the only scene in which Fletcher shows any kind of emotion that doesn’t seem to be a manipulation of Andrew (or so we think). Of course, all the information changes when the circumstances surrounding the student’s death are revealed. It wasn’t a car crash, as Fletcher originally said. It was suicide—and Fletcher is surely to blame.
Reexamining Fletcher’s breakdown in rehearsal, I find myself wondering: was this as honest as he could get? If there are no lines, is this the price that all his students must eventually pay? Does he show any contrition at all? It’s left ambiguous for a reason, but I don’t think he does. After all, that’s the real horror to his character; that’s how committed he is as a “No 2. Musician” and how far gone he is as a person.
With so many standout scenes, it’s difficult to settle on a single moment as my favorite. There’s the entire sequence from when Andrew gets into a car accident, and after climbing out of a vehicle that has been turned over, runs to the concert, only to be unable to perform; as if that wasn’t enough, he tackles Fletcher to the ground. The film could have ended after that, but the actual climax was even more gripping. The moment where Fletcher locks eyes with Andrew during his drum solo—the way the realization slowly dawns on both of their faces—is stunning. Fletcher’s finally done it—he’s found his guy, and in doing so, Andrew’s achieved what he—and all of us—thought impossible: he’s made his teacher proud.
Whiplash could have gone in so many different directions. There could have been a n entire movie that explored the consequences of Andrew’s relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist); his family; or one that delved deeper into the other students at Shaffer; but none of those versions would have been as compelling as the one we got. Whiplash is noisy, and has a lot going on, but it never gets distracted from the story it set out to tell in the opening scene, between these two men. Besides, sometimes disparate sounds can blend together in beautiful and unexpected ways. When that happens, you get a film like this, one that is, personally speaking, exactly my tempo.