Jazz drumming at an elite conservatory didn’t puncture my curiosity initially, but Whiplash has more to offer than a tremendous jazz score. The film shares a dynamic duo whose relationship heavily blurs the line between right and wrong. Miles Teller rips through this film with an elevated level of dedicated ferocity that I haven’t seen from a young actor recently, while J.K. Simmons is both electrifying and terrifying to glimpse on screen. Whiplash is knocking on Oscar’s door, and I think the Academy may listen to what Whiplash has to offer.
A lot of people seem to be shrugging off Whiplash as a “music movie” or a movie about a kid who’s got a real knack for playing the drums, but Whiplash is one of the best-reviewed films of 2014 for a reason. It has the strength to get under your skin and challenge you–should you settle at mediocrity or strive to be the best? A question both relative to the film as it is relative to our present day culture who perpetually settles at the margin. The film pushes the envelope with this question combining the driving force of Black Swan dedication under the severe command-style of Full Metal Jacket. This tour de force is not one to miss and certainly one to learn from this year.
Whiplash follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer who attends one of the best music schools in the nation and lands a coveted position in a jazz troupe under the fearsome command of a maestro (J.K. Simmons) loathsome enough to make any man erupt into tears under pressure. Neiman’s determination is to be “one of the greats” like his idol Buddy Rich, but is set on a pedestal measured in how much blood ones fingers can spill onto the drums. Neiman learns in his first session that his life will shut down in this class; Fletcher looms a chair, slaps and berates Neiman after he performs Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” off tempo as the classroom watches silently.
This is a definitive role for Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) as a young actor who portrays both arrogance and insecurity to rise to the top. I had my reservations about Teller too, but boy can this kid act and drum! This isn’t the type of movie that hassles a good actor to learn to play an instrument on a mediocre level while the camera perpetually pans to hide the actor’s inability to play. Teller does both, and he does both really well.
To get the drumming right in Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle (himself a drummer) had the idea to hire a real musician. Nate Lang, an actor and a member of the New York band the Howlin’ Souls, plays Teller’s rival, Carl.
“Teller taught himself to play drums when he was 15, but favored rock ’n’ roll. Lang’s first job was to change Teller’s grip from what’s called ‘matched,’ in which both hands hold the sticks the same way, to ‘traditional,’ a grip used by jazz drummers in which the left hand holds the stick a bit sideways, almost like a chopstick.
The duo spent about two months working three to four hours a day in an LA rehearsal space. By the end, they began perfecting the songs from the film: ‘Whiplash’ by Hank Levy and Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan.'” via NY Post
But the true guts and glory of the film belong to the villain maestro of the film, J.K. Simmons, who will certainly strike the attention of the Academy. Simmons (Oz, The Closer, Spiderman, Juno) is so ferocious in this film that his piercing stare and drive to find the next great jazz artist blurs the line of how far a teacher should push a student. But while his teaching methods aren’t tactful, appropriate or moral, his bottom line is to scrape mediocrity off the board. Either be great or quit.
“To watch J.K. Simmons in ‘Whiplash’ is always to be wondering what it is you’re seeing and what is going on in this man’s mind. Simmons plays a familiar character, a relentless and demanding music teacher, but what he and director Damien Chazelle offer us is anything but typical. This teacher remains mysterious, even as to motive, just an awful but charismatic fact in his students’ lives.
For Simmons, this is a great moment. For years he has been a standout actor in supporting roles, sometimes the best thing in a movie, and yet his name has been barely known to the public. Show his picture to people, and they will say, ‘Oh, that guy.’ But he has deserved better than that, and now he’s got it.” via SF Gate
What some critics don’t grasp is that the philosophy of Fletcher isn’t tolerable, nor is this a movie attempting to be about jazz. The film is an exploration of two characters and their dynamic relationship together in the musical quest to triumph over mediocrity and its public acceptance.