Photo: Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Director(s): Damien Chazelle

Writer(s): Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Max Kasch and Max Gupton

Reviewed by: Christine Lambert on

Release Date(s)

Oct 24, 2014 - Wide

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At what point does “practise makes perfect” turn into obsession? If what makes us proficient can do harm to us, where is the line between skill and damage? Many biographies start with tales of dedicated practise, sometimes at the detriment of all else in that person’s life. Is the reality that the pursuit of perfection comes at a cost? Whiplash tells the story of a young man whose talent leads him to the tutelage of a teacher that has him blurring the lines of skill and sanity.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a nineteen-year-old aspiring jazz drummer who has been accepted into the country’s top prestigious music conservatory jazz program in New York. One night while practising the drums, the school’s top teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) discovers Andrew. Fletcher barks a few commands at Andrew but leaves the room without warning after Andrew obliges. Feeling like he missed his chance to impress the top teacher in the school, Andrew is left deflated. The next day, Andrew is surprised when Fletcher requests that he be moved to his honours jazz orchestra. This change in Andrew’s curriculum will set forth the obsessive behaviours and actions that may have never been explored had Fletcher not requested the change. Andrew is pushed both emotionally and physically to what seems to inhumane levels in pleasing a seemingly unmovable Fletcher.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a jazz drummer in his own right, used his own experiences to create a wonderful, yet terrifying and suspenseful film. The word fear takes on a whole new meaning in Whiplash as one usually associates fear with life or death situations. Here, fear is taken to that level, with Andrew’s fear of Fletcher, of failing and of mediocrity. Chazelle captures the uneven relationship between Fletcher and Andrew perfectly. Fletcher focuses on Andrew, singling him out, humiliating him, treating him like a new toy to rip apart. Andrew, knowing that greatness does not come easy, complies with everything thrown at him, in one case literally, to become a future legend. Chazelle’s ability to convey the obsession drumming has become for Andrew makes the stress and anxiety quite visceral. It is hard to tell where the love for music and the compulsion to succeed interchange. No longer is the viewer watching a musician’s journey, but watching someone fighting for his life. Editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir are outstanding in visually hypnotizing the viewer in a world Chazelle describes as a violent movie where the weapons are words and instruments.

Miles Teller is both heartbreaking and inspiring in this role. His need for greatness comes at every price: physical, emotional and social. His father (Paul Reiser) is one of the last people he interacts with. Reiser’s portrayal is of a broken man whose failure as a writer becomes a searing beacon for Andrew of what not to become. Teller shows smugness when Fletcher introduces him to the rest of the band, confusion when Fletcher calls him out and pain when Fletcher brings him to tears, all in the same scene. The emotional roller coaster Teller portrays is enough angst to last a lifetime for five centenarians. The brink that Andrew is pushed to is only gut-wrenching to watch because Teller is a superb performer. The highs and lows of his character are dizzying and would be lost on most actors.

Simply put, J.K. Simmons is great. Whether he is on the small screen or big, the quality of his work is akin to Chris Cooper and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Simmons creates the character of Fletcher in a way that could not and should never be attempted to be duplicated. To describe Fletcher in a word would be impossible. The easy way to do it would be angry. Easy, done. But to do that dismisses the beautifully intricate character that Simmons portrays. Like a finely-woven vintage brocade fabric, there are many facets to Fletcher. Is he a narcissist? Fletcher’s actions in the pursuit of perfection from his band arguably benefits Fletcher as he is the leader and any poor performance will look badly on him first. His self-importance and sense of entitlement mingled with a lack of empathy positions him to be candidate for the personality disorder. Is he a sadist? Fletcher inflicts pain on his students. He takes personal information obtained during a calm, peaceful moment and uses it against Andrew during practise, a method repeated with other students. A question of “rushing or dragging” turns into a terrifying and humiliating experience for Andrew. Is Fletcher’s passion for music so great that his teaching methods are misunderstood? Is his technique, while unorthodox, so effective and therefore rationalized as warranted? Has Fletcher learned that to get greatness from a student one must go to a seemingly dark, but necessary place to push them beyond what they feel is capable? Does he perform a role for his students that may be contrary to the way he is outside of school as seen in some vulnerable moments? The list of psychological characteristics is long and the lesson is clear: Simmons created a character that is so rich and intricate that it defies designation.

Whiplash is agonizingly brilliant. Whether you are a music aficionado, a novice or admirer, Whiplash will have every one of your creative senses standing at attention.

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