Damien Chazelle’s Sundance hit “Whiplash” has finally made it to your local theater and like any talented drummer’s solo act, the film starts out with an ascending drum roll and finishes out with an encore of epic and applause-worthy proportions. In what can only be explained as a 106-minute adrenaline rush that jams out on the subjects of pride, courage, intimidation, and father figures with a splash of melancholy, “Whiplash” ends up being an indie worth seeing. Although the messages within the film get a little jumbled, the fantastic performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller fortify the whole project.
Andrew Neyman (“The Spectacular Now’s” Miles Teller) is a first-year student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. After garnering the interest of the school’s most prolific music director, Terrence Fletcher (“Spider-Man’s” J.K. Simmons), Andrew is invited into his band. What Andrew doesn’t know are the physical and emotional taxes that go along with being a student of Fletcher, who pushes his students to the limits by shouting profanities and throwing chairs at them among other stress-inducing techniques.
In the hands of another director, “Whiplash” could have ended up as some run of the mill life affirming music drama. In the hands of the Chazelle though, we get a tour-de-force that lingers on how meticulous and crazed a musician can become when dedicated to their work. Chazelle amplifies the brutality that Andrew goes through under Fletcher’s musical regime, even depicting the bloody outcome of pushing too far with one’s art. The best thing Chazelle ever did was writing this story as a narrative focused directly on the relationship between Andrew and Terrence. Not once does it pander off into the wonders that a college student may find in the big bright lights of New York City or rest on a romantic story involving Andrew that would only bring to the forefront his hopeless romanticism. This is the Teller and Simmons show, and “Whiplash” is all the better for it.
Teller, burdened by the horrendous “Divergent” in the beginning of this year, spoke publicly about his distaste and ‘dead inside’ feeling that was rejuvenated by working on “Whiplash.” When watching Andrew, you almost immediately have to identify with his struggle to achieve something in his life in regards to music. This point is only further exemplified in a dinner sequence where some family friends are being lauded as collegiate football players ‘with a future.’ Andrew lashes out and asks why he can’t be appreciated on the same level as the jocks sitting across from him. Being the subtlest sequence in the whole film, trading in loud drum smacks for dinner talk, we get a short but endearing glimpse into Andrew’s eternal struggle with making people feel proud. Teller owns this role that could easily be passed off as some coming-of-age trope in a lesser talented actor’s performance.
J.K. Simmons, the ‘that guy’ actor from films like “Spider-Man” and “Juno”, is finally given one of the most deeply thought and well fleshed-out roles of his whole career as the violently cantankerous Terrence Fletcher. As Simmons walks around, every student he encounters goes silent. The man is a brooding man with a silent brutality. Even when he throws out gay slurs like the notes he’s composing, the viewer can’t help but feel enthralled by the experience of watching Simmons tear someone down to a hyperventilating mess.
Herein lies the biggest slight to the narrative that felt me losing touch with “Whiplash’s” emotional core. To me, the film is about father figures. We have Jim (Paul Reiser), Andrew’s father, who is almost nowhere to be seen in supporting his son through this difficult music endeavor. We have Fletcher; the most brutal man alive, pushing Andrew to his furthermost boundaries to achieve musical greatness. On one hand, I agree with how brutal Fletcher is treating Andrew, as he only wants to seem him live up to his full potential. On the other hand, I would have loved to get even deeper context into the relationship that Andrew and his father shared. We are only given glimpses into Andrew’s past when to me, I would have stayed in the theater for another hour if that meant there would be more exposition describing why Jim is so passive towards Andrew’s musical plight and personal life.
Gripes aside, “Whiplash” comes in with a soft drum roll that primes us for the exhilarating madness to come and then ends in an explosive encore that never feels overwrought or long. The rush may wear off to you after being subjected to the experience that is “Whiplash” but you will not soon forget this pouncing little indie that could.
Review by Sam Cohen