Whiplash is a film about music and as I have neither knowledge of nor much interest in music, it’s no surprise that this one is one of my wife’s picks. Still, it was one of the big winners for last year’s Academy Awards so it’s not like it’s a low-profile film. It’s also a film with a clear auteur, as Damien Chazelle both wrote and directed it based on his own experiences in a studio band.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a first-year student at the prestigious but fictional Schaffer Conservatory. The conductor of the school’s studio band Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, notices him practicing his drumming late one night and invites him to join them as an alternate. There he soon learns that the entire band is terrified of Fletcher as he uses abusive methods to enforce discipline and demands nothing short of perfection. Yet the harder Fletcher drives him, the more Neiman rises to the challenge even if he has to nearly kill himself to meet his teacher’s impossible standards.
Being a film about a musician who goes to extreme lengths to become one of the greats, there are clear parallels here with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan. Andrew literally has to sacrifice blood, sweat and tears to achieve his dreams and Chazelle is all too eager to show the layer upon layer of bandages Andrew applies to his hands as well as the blood-specked drums. I liked how he also shows that it isn’t just Andrew with the puddles of saliva under the feet of the players of wind instruments. And it’s not just physical brutality either. He has to sacrifice his relationships and maybe any possibility of friendship since the musicians are all so competitive that they’d do anything to be the best and be seen as the best.
Yet, happily, Whiplash is far from being just a retread of Aronofsky’s films. The core of this film is the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher. Fletcher’s great ambition is to create the next Charlie Parker, a legendary saxophonist, and delights in recounting an anecdote in which a fellow musician nearly decapitating Parker with a cymbal pushed him to practice until he became perfect. Initially Andrew is as horrified as the other students by these methods, but it becomes clear it works for him even as they come to detest each other. As Fletcher says, there’s no such thing as pushing too hard since those who would falter were never destined to be great anyway.
As its poster claims, it’s an electrifying ride, all the more so as it throws enough shocks your way such that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to head next. This probably the best performance of Simmons’ career as the ultimate teacher of your nightmares. As for Teller, while I doubt that he’ll make much of a name for himself after this and I certainly can’t see as being a convincing Mr. Fantastic in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, the way he pulls off a transformation from fresh-faced naivety to rage-fueled obsession to prove himself is exactly what this role needs.
Still, it’s worth noting that while Whiplash won over most critics, those who know the most about music have been sour on it. Even as someone who knows nothing about jazz, I’m doubtful that being able to furiously drum at high speeds or slavishly keep perfect time with the conductor’s tempo is what it takes to be a great jazz musician. I’ve always thought of jazz as being something that’s all about having a good time, being able to improvise on the fly and reading the audience’s mood and engaging with them. It’s possible that if I knew more about music, I’d be just as annoyed with this film as I was with how The Imitation Game got computer science wrong for example.
For my part, these reservations weren’t enough to detract from what is an amazingly intense experience. If this is what it takes to achieve true success, then count me out. There’s no doubt that it’s one of the best Hollywood films of 2014.