Like the title suggests, Whiplash is a jarring and explosive event, striking with a force and power that stuns and reverberates for moments to come. Director Damien Chazelle doesn’t direct a film so much as he conducts an orchestra, leading with a barrage of percussion and brass then, deftly, employs gentle finely-tuned writing to create a lasting spectacle whose final notes echo reverberantly among stunned viewers.
Whiplash tells the story of 19-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a freshman at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He wants to be one of the greats, a famous jazz drummer in the style of Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker, and he’s very dedicated to his craft. He drums alone in practice rooms while his hallmates blast loud music from their weekend parties. He listens to jazz recordings alone in his apartment, tapping out complex drum beats with his fingertips. He lives and breathes his art.
Andrew is so dedicated that he manages to catch the eye of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who presides over the elite jazz band ensemble with a nauseating combination of admiration and fear worthy of a despot. After extending an invitation to Andrew to play with his group, Fletcher introduces a new piece of music titled “Whiplash,” featuring a complicated drum beat. Andrew’s first attempt at the piece is met with failure, and this understandable failure is a conduit to Fletcher’s scathing vehemence.
Fletcher punishes his students with calculating cruelty in an effort to discover the best among them, pushing many of them to physical and mental limits. Andrew accepts Fletcher’s “tough love” style of encouragement wholeheartedly, rising to the occasion with the focus of a monk plumbing the depths of his devotion. He sweats. He cries. He bleeds, bandaging his widening scabs and returning to the grind, flagellating himself in the hopes of becoming good enough in Fletcher’s eyes. Andrew’s epic struggle pushes him to both harrowing highs and depressive lows as his and Fletcher’s fates entwine toward a dizzying end.
Whiplash presents us with uncomfortable, yet necessary questions concerning the morality of success at any cost. In an era that champions the accomplishments of powerful men like Steve Jobs, Lance Armstrong, and Bela Karolyi, success is now often questioned against the means toward that end. The film is wisely ambiguous, promoting nothing but the very real, very problematic truth that the methods taken by ruthless individuals can be quite effective. But of course, at what cost?
And why does Fletcher care so much? The outbursts appear to stem more from method than from any personal anger, as Fletcher never seems beyond in control over his outbursts. Actor J.K. Simmons delivers an exquisite performance wavering on the narrow precipice between domineering and madman. Similarly, Miles Teller’s Andrew is a commanding performance, the hyper-focused presence of a young man forsaking all else for his goal. He captures Andrew’s transformation from impassioned to obsessed with a delicate touch that toes the line between dedicated and jerk, but never fully crosses it.
The entire cinematic experience of Whiplash is one for which movies as an art form exist. It wows with the precision and instrumentality of a full orchestra under the command of a skilled conductor. The world of Whiplash is starkly clear, evocative of the dingy college practice rooms stained with decades of sweat from nervous pupils, the squeaks and pips of a studio before morning practice, even elements as minute as editing cuts and beat sequences reminiscent of the spontaneous musical experience of a jazz performance.
The film’s production story is an epic saga on its own. Chazelle wrote the script, drawn from life experiences as a high school jazz drummer, as a side project after reaching a period of writer’s block. It first went into a drawer, then, once Chazelle decided to bring it out, it still remained unproduced on Hollywood’s Blacklist before funding could be obtained. Then, finally, in a breakneck effort to meet deadlines, the entire film was shot and edited at a rapid pace.
And yet, impressively, the result of this frenzied, harried effort from script to screen is smooth. Whiplash plays with a streamlined quality that commands attention for the full 106 minutes with crisp efficiency. Best of all, there is no time for thinking in Whiplash, only to understand and react, which is perfect for a movie about playing music, an activity in which both too little thinking and too much thinking can be dangerous, as anyone who has ever tried to stop and analyze the machinations of their instrument will know. Like the art of music itself, Whiplash flows.
In a medium as messy as film, with enough items to monitor as to rival the cockpit of a small plane, even the most perfect films tend to leave something amiss. And there is plenty that could have gone wrong here — a story about music, told through film. A story of ambition with no clear resolution and an ambiguous definition of success. Familiar character roles that could descend dangerously into cliches by manage to never come close.
In the end, perhaps it is the deceptive simplicity of the film that works so well. The story is straightforward without being trite. Sympathetic but not indulgent. All the while churning on deeper levels with a level of focus and skill not easily detectable at the surface.
The same is true for drumming itself, as Chazelle tells us — sometimes the most complicated sounding beats are in fact the easiest to play, while occasionally the more complex sequences can seem simple to the untrained ear. And that’s how it is with Whiplash, engaging us in a tale that we may think we have seen before that then rattles us in ways we did not expect. The writhing unpredictable storytelling of Whiplash doesn’t unfold on screen so much as it explodes, with a driving, dizzying power that is much like jazz itself.