There are few films featured in the lineup of the New York Film Festival this year that come to the festival with heaps of praise already. Leading the pack is Whiplash, which has wowed audiences from Sundance to Cannes for its cast and first-time director Damien Chazelle. As a critic, it’s rare to see a festival film with so much praise live up to expectations. It’s even rarer in the case of Whiplash — when those expectations are exceeded by such a brilliant film.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a shy first-year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. Though a proficient drummer, Andrew dreams of playing in the school’s top band, conducted by the oppressive Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Though Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) encourages his son to take it easy, Andrew is determined to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. While undeniably brilliant, Fletcher pushes his students by bullying them and creating animosity between them by forcing them to compete with each other for positions in the band. His students will not look him in the eye, and his “lessons” consist of tirades that insult his students on every emotional level possible. Even his few moments of tenderness with his students are attempts to find more ammo to hurt them with later. With the shy Andrew, Fletcher is particularly vicious, forcing him to play until his hands are raw. Fletcher honestly believes that by forcing his students beyond their emotional and physical limits, he is making them better musicians. As he says later in the film, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'” Whiplash follows the antagonism between the two, which brings both the best and worst out of them both.
Because he’s young, ambitious and in awe of the highly-regarded conductor, Andrew bases his entire self-worth on Fletcher’s shifting regard for him. When Fletcher tears him down, Andrew becomes depressed and angry, and when Fletcher praises him Andrew carries himself with immediate confidence and develops a chip on his shoulder. In fact, there’s a particularly interesting dinner scene where Andrew’s world-class accomplishments are spoken about in less regard than those of his father’s friend’s son, a Division III football player. Andrew unleashes a smug tirade about how much better he is. While very funny, the scene works on two levels — first, because Andrew is right, and second because he nonetheless has a huge chip on his shoulder for a guy who has yet to prove himself. In this way, I alternately rooted for Andrew, yet felt that his antagonists were fully justified when they took him down a peg. Few filmmakers would feel confident in making the lead character so multidimensional and go the easy route and have him be completely likeable. Luckily for us, Chazelle didn’t go the easy route, and wisely he chose an actor like Teller who can tow the line between likeable and smug.
It’s fair to say that J.K. Simmons had a career breakthrough when he played J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man films (a role he reprises on various Marvel cartoon series) — and I’d argue that he was so perfect for the role that Sony has been afraid to replace him in the new film series. Because of that, he tends to be cast in roles with a comedic element. While there is some element of comedy to the harsh insults Fletcher dishes out — think R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket — this is a career-defining dramatic performance from Simmons. It’s the kind of performance that makes it impossible to ever look at him the same again without thinking of what he brought to this role. Chazelle needed an actor with a very expressive face for this role, and in Simmons he found the perfect actor. In fact, though at its heart this is a film about music, Whiplash is a film about motivation and coaching. When it reaches its conclusion, it will force you to consider Fletcher’s “the ends justify the means” approach to his teaching.
Chazelle not only impresses with his script and casting, but with his creative use of the camera during the musical sequences (along with a thoroughly dynamite soundtrack). Really, there is nothing in this film that would make you suspect that it was made by a rookie director. There’s no denying that he will have a lot to live up to in his next film.
RATING: An engaging narrative about coaching that even those who don’t appreciate jazz will marvel at (8.5/10)