Cast: J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
As Fletcher, a tightly wound, possibly psychotic music professor barking orders at his proteges like a drill instructor, J.K. Simmons gives a performance so brazenly over-the-top that it nearly topples over into self-parody. The character is a patriarchal villain for the ages; spouting Socratic rhetoric, profanity-laced tirades, and violently tossing instruments at the heads of his students, but there's also a definite sense that his behavior could be a method exercise in order to find the next great jazz musician. In this way, it's entirely possible that Fletcher thinks and acts differently in his private life, but this, of course, is merely conjecture. What matters here has less to do with Fletcher anyhow and more with freshman jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), who attends a hyper-competitive music school in Manhattan, and whose relentless drive to be the next Buddy Rich places him firmly in the cross-hairs of the aforementioned maniacal instructor.
Teller is also quite good here as a 19-year-old kid with an insatiable ambition and desire to scrub away every distraction from his life in order to pursue artistic greatness, and writer-director Damien Chazelle (whose 2010 debut Guy Madeline on a Park Bench recalled Cassavetes' seminal 1959 film Shadows) gets around one of the main problems with movies about musicians; namely, cheating the actual playing part. Though there's obviously filmic/editing techniques at work here in order to exaggerate Teller's abilities, there are also wide shots where there's no mistaking that the actor has tremendous skills behind the kit. This is a key point in terms of believability, though it's also clear that as a film, Whiplash is more interested in hyper-realism than anything resembling lived-in grittiness. In a way, the film has more in common with heightened melodrama than any kind of expose on the nature of competitive artists. Everything is elevated just a tad; with Fletcher especially operating as little more than a cartoonish construct, given verisimilitude through the sheer intensity of Simmon's portrayal.
Despite these two fully committed performances, the film's real star is Chazelle, who at the ripe age of 29, has made a wholly confident piece of technical filmmaking that's a dazzling feat of staging, composition, and editing. What is is not, despite some wildly hyperbolic praise coming out of The Sundance Film Festival, is some kind of probing study of a fractious mentor/pupil relationship that offers legitimate insight into it's characters psychology. This tendency for Chazelle to keep a distance from his characters is positive in the sense that it allows the audience to fill in the blanks. We don't need, for instance, countless scenes of Andrew arguing with his father (a solid if underused Paul Reiser) about not wanting to grow up to be a mediocre adult fraught with regret, nor do we need to see Fletcher's existence outside his studio to further understand his passive-aggressive methodology. This lack of a sturdy point of view on what motivates the two central characters beyond self-delusional hubris means that Whiplash ends up being more of an entertaining, though decidedly well-acted, teacher vs. student melodrama than anything of true substance. The film is also strangely male-centered (are there no young women driven to be great jazz players?) and the lone female character (a fetching Melissa Benoist) is given little to do beyond portraying a girl Andrew takes out on a few dates and then abruptly dumps in lieu of his dream. While it's understandable that the masochistic environment Fletcher creates inside his studio would preclude the involvement of women, it's not unreasonable to think that Chazelle could have developed Benoist's character beyond a mere plot device.
Then there's the issues of plot contrivances and the overreaching aspects of his screenplay; which plant wildly implausible scenarios (mysteriously disappearing sheet music, a horrific car accident) into a narrative which really should have a razor-sharp focus. In hindsight, such ludicrous elements may in fact correspond to the film's overall sense of hyper-realism, but in the moment, they simply feel dramatically convenient. The film's final reel, meanwhile, just might be the most contrived of all, with the Andrew/Fletcher battle of wills reaching a fever pitch during an explosive onstage jazz competition. Chazelle goes full Scorsese during this last set-piece; complete with camera whips, pans, visceral closeups, and sped-up tracking shots whirling around that accompany the music; a combination of original compositions by Justin Hurwitz mixed in with other jazz classics. From a purely technical standpoint, the ending is a rush of pure adrenaline, but it also raises certain questions that Chazelle doesn't seem to care about addressing. Honestly, many will leave the film feeling elated and inspired, but the ending is much less optimistic and more psychologically fucked up than it initially appears. Though both characters seem to come out with want they have been striving for, the film doesn't seem that interested with placing the consequences of their behavior into a believable context.
Blood is spilled. Cymbals are thrown. Homophobic slurs are flung. Two white guys duke it out for jazz supremacy in a traditionally African American genre. Whiplash understands the psychological and physical demands of beating yourself into submission for your art, but misunderstands the grace, subtlety and communal aspect of all great jazz music. By replacing the joy of these essential elements with juvenile testosterone-fueled "my dick is bigger than yours" sentiments, the film misses out on providing its characters room for nuance. Still, those hyper-kinetic drumming sequences are so thrillingly visceral, that the film often works solely as an immersive experience. Let's hope next time the supremely talented Chazelle is interested in more than pulsating rhythms, clanging cymbals, and a bald guy popping his neck veins after destroying the hopes and dreams of the young.