Intense and stupefying as mercilessly and powerfully playing our heart like those poor drums on the screen, “Whiplash” knocks us out with its tremendous energy coming from the tumultuous battle of two clashing will powers which is not only unpredictable enough to make our teeth clenched but also complex enough to made us think more about its themes. Is it necessary to be pushed harder and harder to go beyond your boundaries? Are all those pains and sweats acceptable just for that sublime moment of artistic elevation? And how can you know whether you really have the right stuff for enduring that long, torturous road to greatness, besides your big hope and ambition?
In case of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old student of the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, he is ready to follow his aspiration to be a great jazz drummer like Buddy Rich, and the opening scene of the film shows him going through his usual night practice at the school. As the camera looks closer to his ongoing practice, it is revealed that someone is watching him while not noticed by him, and it turns out to be none other than Mr. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the most notorious music teacher at the Shaffer Conservatory who is very infamous for his fearful perfectionism and his barbaric treatment of students.
Despite that notoriety of his, every student in the school is eager to be selected by Fletcher someday mainly because his recognition will mean a lot to them as well as their future career, and Andrew gets that coveted chance on the next day when Fletcher suddenly walks into the middle of Andrew’ current class and then, after briefly evaluating Andrew’s performance again, instructs Andrew to attend his class as a new alternative drummer in the next morning.
While it looks wonderful to Andrew at the beginning, he is soon shaken by how ruthlessly intimidating his new teacher can be, right from his first hour in Fletcher’s class where every student is always on the edge as dreading what kind of disaster can possibly happen during the class. Fletcher treats Andrew rather mildly at first, but then he is quickly turned into something equivalent of a wrathful Marine drill instructor as soon as he notices some imperfections during his students’ performance. Besides pressuring his students to perfectly follow every instruction of his, he casually throws cruel, vicious verbal abuses at his students every time they make any mistake, and we see how he mercilessly drives an unfortunate student to tears at one point.
The mood in his classroom is always tense whenever Andrew and others try their best in front of their hellish teacher who is constantly keen on detecting any wrong note or tempo. He simply stops performance with his authoritative gesture at times, but then he throws a chair with his furious anger when he can no longer tolerate any sloppiness, and I must say it is rather amazing that such a tempestuous guy like him has managed to stay in his teaching position despite all these verbal/physical abuses which would surely lead lawsuits in reality (However, as a guy who had some experiences with a number of very difficult professors during my 15 years at the campus I can tell you that you can get away with many things as long as you are on the top of your field).
He does not make any exception on Andrew either, and Andrew comes to get his moment of abuse and humiliation from Fletcher during a very painful moment, but he becomes more determined to be recognized by Fletcher. He tries to meet his teacher’s tough demands, and he concentrates more and more on his practice. As one point, he practices so long and hard with his drumsticks that his hands are soon covered with scars and band aids, and we even get one cringe-inducing shot showing his bleeding hand getting soaked in a big glass of ice water.
“Whiplash” was originally an 18-minute short film directed by the director/writer Damirn Chazelle, who wrote the screenplay based on his own experience with a jazz band during his high school years (according to him, Fletcher was partially inspired by his former band instructor). When his short film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, it received positive responses along with the sufficient financial investment for making the feature-length version as Chazelle intended from the start, and the final result, which was shot with the modest budget of 3.3 million dollar during 19 days, is a superlative achievement which deserves all the acclaims it has received since its big success at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year (the movie received not only the Audience Award but also the Grand Jury Prize).
As the main subject of the film, music is certainly one of its important ingredients, and the music performance scenes are handled well while also functioning as the crucial narrative points in the plot. Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score is mixed along well with a number of standard jazz numbers including Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, and the cinematography by Sharone Meir is slick and well-lighted as effectively establishing the urban mood on the screen, and the editing by Tom Cross, which deserves an Oscar nomination for its breathtaking precision and deftness, is superlative especially when the movie is palpably brimming over with high dramatic stakes.
And there lies a high-octane acting synergy crackling at the center of the movie, which is fueled by two talented actors fully committed to an unpredictable psychological tug-of-war between their contrasting characters. J.K. Simmons, a veteran actor who has mostly been known as irascible J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, has the role of lifetime here in this film, and he gives a superb performance full of vigor and intensity which brought him onto the very top of the list of potential Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees even before the award season began. The beauty of his performance is that he lets us understand his character’s professional passion and dedication even though we still hates his guts a lot even in the end; Fletcher can be very heartless, manipulative, and vicious if that suits him well, and he certainly amazes us more as a very unlikable human being, but then we sometimes feel a bit sorry for him as observing him as a miserable prisoner of his own ambition who keeps making more misery for himself as well as others around him.
The principle of his Spartan teaching is reflected well by an anecdote he often emphasizes to Andrew. When Charlie Parker gave a lousy performance during his early years, Jo Jones humiliated Parker through throwing a cymbal at him, and, rather than giving up his career, disgraced Parker drove himself more through many hard practices, and he eventually became “Bird” as he has been known. Fletcher firmly believes any raw talent needs to be pushed harder for something great to be achieved, and he is willing to do anything just for getting what he has yearned for many years – and he never regrets about his tough teaching method which can seriously damage his students.
On the opposite, Miles Teller, a young actor who initially drew my attention through his likable performance in “The Spectacular Now” (2013), gives an equally commendable performance as Simmons’ worthy match on the screen. While looking believable during his drum performance scenes thanks to many hours of his strenuous practice, Teller is also very compelling in his dynamic portrayal of Andrew’s gradual transformation along the story, and we come to see that his character is not wholly innocent in his circumstance. Andrew really aspires to be the best, so he willingly endures Fletcher’s draconian treatments as letting himself driven by Fletcher’s belief, so he becomes more aggressive and single-minded in his pursuit of perfection. His possible romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is consequently affected as he comes to care a lot more about improving his talent day by day, and the tension between him and Fletcher is increased further along with Andrew’s artistic ego and brash confidence fueled by his growing talent and ambition.
Around the second act of the film, there is a frantic moment of pure madness when Andrew desperately tries to keep his position during a rather unlikely situation pressing him all the way to his limits physically and psychologically. You may think this part is too unrealistic compared to its realistic background, but it somehow works in the context of the story which always finds a way to strike us and its hero hard in its free-flowing narrative surpassing many usual genre conventions, and everything in the story is eventually culminated into the point whose indelible complexity I let you discover for yourself. Chazelle’s screenplay agrees with neither Fletcher’s view nor Andrew’s, but it shows instead what they have common between them despite all those hard feelings between them in the end, and I was certainly not surprised to hear from others about how enraptured the audiences were during the screenings of the film.
“Whiplash” is a small powerhouse movie equipped with confident filmmaking and astonishing power, and this great music film gave me an overwhelming but electrifying emotional ride still remained vividly in my mind. Like its hero, it pushes and drives itself hard with blood, tear, and sweat on its performing hands, and I must confess that I was frequently swept by its heart-pounding emotional effects on the screen during my viewing. Fletcher says “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”, but, what the hell, I will say the director Damirn Chazelle and his actors and crew did a damn good job.