One of the greatest things about film is its ability to transport you to another world. Whether it’s the ravages of war, the inside of a television network, or the world of boxing – you can be a fly on the wall of another realm. Even the most mundane, seemingly uninteresting subjects can become fascinating if one is allowed a glimpse of its inner workings. Such was the case in Whiplash, a fascinating film that examines the relationship between a hard-driving music instructor (J.K. Simmons, Labor Day) and his gifted pupil (Miles Teller, That Awkward Moment). Writer/director Damien Chazelle (The Last Exorcism Part II) gives an unflinching look at the competitive backstage world of a top tier music conservatory, crafting a surprisingly tense film.
Teller stars as Andrew, a sophomore at fictional Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. A jazz drummer, he spends most of his time playing or listening to jazz, perfecting his craft in seclusion. Eventually he crosses paths with Fletcher, an instructor who typically works with the more talented upperclassmen. Fletcher operates with impunity, berating and insulting his students, exacting every ounce of sweat and ability until only a shell remains. He parsimoniously withholds praise to the point of cruelty, but one could argue the merits of his approach – as the Shaffer jazz band routinely fares well whenever it competes against other ensembles. Having been raised by a single father and with few friends, Andrew pours himself into his work and longs for Fletcher’s approval and validation.
Whiplash was a compelling psychological study. So named for an oft-played piece of music from the film, the title serves as a jarring harbinger of things to come. I’ve seen war movies with some of the most intimidating drill sergeants imaginable – yet they pale in comparison to Fletcher, who never has a kind word for young Andrew – even when he drums his fingers into bloody oblivion. Teller was brilliant in the role, both technically and artistically. He filmed most of the drumming scenes himself and prepared tirelessly for the part. Simmons is probably most known for supporting roles, but showed he has the chops to take center stage. Fletcher was cruel and menacing, but also a richly complex character. He revealed rare compassion in one scene as he mourned the death of a former student, a startling moment of humanity punctuating the onslaught of abuse.
I enjoy jazz music and loved the film’s musicality, but if jazz isn’t your thing you may grow tired of the behind-the-scenes angle. Black Swan showed us that drive, intensity and competitiveness aren’t reserved for athletic pursuits. Whiplash isn’t as complex or beautiful as that film, but I enjoyed it. There aren’t many surprises or character growth leading to resolution, though the ending leaves this up for interpretation. It was a well-done film, and though its subject matter may not excite all viewers, I’d highly recommend it. Grade: B+