TL;DR – Miles Teller just wants to be one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time and Terence Fletcher wants to get him there…but Terence Fletcher knows it won’t come easy for him and his methods are, shall we say, unusual-ish. The criticisms of this movie are mild at worst and Damien Chazelle’s wonderfully crafted script and careful direction paired with spectacular performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make this one of 2014’s best films.
This morning, the nominees for the Golden Globes were announced and J.K. Simmons was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film. I believe my exact words were, “no duh.” No seriously, he’s THAT good.
But let me back up a bit. Given that movies have been around for 100+ years now and storytelling has been around pre-Aristotle, we’re never going to see a “new” story. And that’s okay. I, for one, like seeing the same premise presented over and over because when they switch it up, add a new element, pull something out, tighten this bolt, refill this container, etc., you get an old premise with a new twist and a lot of times it’s fun to watch. Whiplash takes an old premise and puts a wholly new spin on it. I bet you could name ten movies at least that involve a callous bastard of a teacher, an overconfident student, and the myriad of sparks that fly between them all the way to the end. That’d be enough to summarize Whiplash, but not enough to do it justice.
Andrew (Miles Teller) wants nothing more than for his name to fit so snuggly into the space between Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong when people list the names of the jazz greats. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) conducts the highest performing jazz ensemble at Shaffer Conservatory where Andrew is a student. A chance meeting in the opening scene foreshadows the film as we see Fletcher coach Andrew a little and disappear as suddenly as he appeared. What follows is Fletcher taking the risk of sticking Andrew into his ensemble and moving him up to core. During these opening “training” scenes (think: the ghost on the subway training Sam Wheat to move pennies up walls and punch his lying best friend), the rocky relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is set up and Simmons does not disappoint. Aided by Chazelle’s great writing, Fletcher goes on minutes-long diatribes and yanks personal pains out of Andrew’s life to crush him intosand. By the time he’s finished screaming, you feel almost as if he was screaming at you the whole time. It’s incredibly draining, but it’s just set up for the end. I won’t give anything away, but the film wraps up in such a cathartic, complete way.
Chazelle does have a couple of issues that stem from this plotline. I remember in the Jimi Hendrix film that there was hardly any music, which seemed out of place for a movie about Jimi Hendrix. In this film, Chazelle adds the exact amount of music needed (maybe a touch too much, but not enough to cause any problems). The film is still based around the relationship of teacher and student and the relentless motivation of a young man who will make every poor decision he possibly can thinking it’ll push him closer to his goal. But the music doesn’t play backburner and Chazelle very expertly crafted the script around this balance. There is, as I preceded, a couple of issues. We get these long, drawn-out sequences of music, an aural medium, that are being presented in a film, a largely visual medium. Chazelle does mess around with camera angles to keep the visual aspect interesting while we’re listening but after a while, he ends up having to repeat a lot of the same techniques over and over. Luckily, the music is so good and so enrapturing that you sometimes forget you’re watching it because you’re listening to it. There is an excessive number of close ups, on sticks hitting drums, on sweat flying from hair, on blood coagulating on hands (yeah…), and so the visuals can get a little daunting, but the editing is well done and rapid-fire to give the sense of urgency when you have drummers rattling off beats at what sounds like 400BPM.
Miles Teller did great as Andrew but J.K. Simmons took it to another level as Terence Fletcher. With a very new twist on a very old concept, Golden Globe nomination-worthy performances (and, I’m saying it now, Academy Award nomination-worthy, I’m taking all bets), great editing, killer music, and smart direction, Whiplash absolutely can not be omitted from any list talking about 2014’s best films.
Final grade: A