Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Directed by: Damien Chazelle (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”)
Written by: Damien Chazelle (“Grand Piano”)
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (recent past winners include “Fruitvale Station” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”), “Whiplash” is a compelling and oftentimes jolting drama anchored by two intense performances by Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”), the latter of whom should easily garner the first Oscar nomination of his solid 20-year career.
In “Whiplash,” Teller stars as Andrew Neyman, a highly talented albeit raw jazz drummer attending a prestigious music school in hopes of becoming one of the greatest percussionists to ever live. His real education begins when he is handpicked by ruthless instructor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) as the backup drummer of the top orchestra in the entire conservatory. If Andrew wants to be the best, he’s going to have to play with the best. For Fletcher, getting someone to that level means ripping that talent out of his students without remorse, which includes emotional and physical abuse on a daily basis. Is Andrew willing to suffer through Fletcher’s constant attacks to reach the level of musicianship he wants, or will the brutality of his instructor break him?
While the idea that such a insulting music instructor would be allowed to teach at a college without anyone making a formal complaint to someone over the years is fairly unbelievable, the characterization, while sometimes a tad overboard, is a fantastic turn by Simmons especially during those scenes when he becomes a monster in the studio. Whether he’s tossing a chair across the room or kicking a student out of his band because said student doesn’t know if he’s playing out of tune, Simmons makes anger an art form. It is not a one-note performance, however. He also manages to show a human side, which is quickly forgotten once he snaps again.
Matching his performance is Teller, whose creates an inspired character driven by total ambition. His evolution throughout the film is at times brilliant as we watch Andrew go from a naïve kid to someone willing to fight for what he’s sacrificed everything for, including a relationship with a new girlfriend that is not nearly explored well enough to matter. When they share the screen, Teller and Simmons become a pair of opposing characters moviegoers won’t be able to shift their eyes from.
“Whiplash” might be named after a jazz standard by American composer Hank Levy, but it also describes the way in which Andrew is treated in the cutthroat nature of his unique music education experience. Whether or not he survives on any level is left up to the audience, but the journey to get to that moment where he puts everything on the line isn’t something you will soon forget.