‘Whiplash” is ostensibly about the relationship between a jazz drummer and his teacher. It has little to do with the jazz. It has everything to do with the relationship. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film is really about the passions that drive us in life and the intense, potentially insane methods we use to get those passions out of ourselves and out of others. The film never answers the question “how much is too much?”, but it’s hanging there the whole time, ready to be slammed shut inside the terrifying right-handed fist of J.K. Simmons.
It’s a right hand that Simmons should get used to using – he’ll likely be holding an Oscar in it soon. He plays Terence Fletcher, a conductor at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, a school for gifted aspiring musicians. The aspiring musician in question is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old who’s so dedicated to becoming the next Buddy Rich, he sleeps under his poster at night. (That poster’s right next to another one of a famed Rich quote – “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band.” This might not be the movie for Phil Rudd.)
From the start, it’s a hellish match made in heaven. Andrew’s jettisoned anything resembling a life outside of music. Fletcher’s in search of “my own Charlie Parker”. From the opening scene, you can tell Fletcher thinks he may have it. But he needs to break Andrew down beyond the point of no return. This is a man who claims “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” He’s Bob Knight in a black T-shirt – and, yes, there’s even a chair thrown.
I imagine two schools of thought emerge from those watching “Whiplash” as Fletcher pummels Andrew, emotionally and physically. Some folks will want the kid to walk away, thinking the end result won’t be worth the beating. Others will want to see Andrew sit at that drum kit until his bruised and bloodied hands can’t take it anymore. The first group may very well be right. But I was in the second. No one could justify the torrent of homophobic slurs unleashed by Fletcher, and his methods of teaching and conducting are often gruesome to watch. But the film leaves little doubt he runs as top-notch of a jazz orchestra as any in the city. The question is whether or not Andrew has what it takes to make it – an answer which takes longer than you might think to find out. You don’t know if Andrew will break first or if Fletcher – who you sense hasn’t been broken in decades – will.
I suspect “Whiplash” is a deeply personal film for many people. I know it is, in spurts, for me. That doesn’t mean I, or you, or most anyone’s had a conductor, a teacher, a coach or a mentor the level of Terence Fletcher in our lives. But so many of us have been driven by someone who saw something in us we didn’t see in ourselves. We’ll never forget it. We may even want to pay it forward. There’s a point in our lives when we go from being taught to being the teacher, and it all clicks. We can see through a pair of eyes that we couldn’t see through before.
At one point, Fletcher stops his studio band because there’s an out-of-tune player. It’s one of the images in the film that’s stuck with me the most. This man is so on top of his game that he knows exactly how it is from the moment the note enters his head. He immediately knows how he’ll handle the situation, in three equally intense and darkly funny parts. The lesson he teaches the group will blindside you and humor you at the same time. At another telling moment, Fletcher relays an anecdote to Andrew about Charlie Parker only realizing his full potential after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. The story’s wrong. Jones actually threw it at Parker’s feet. Some reviewers have taken to criticizing the film for this, but I suspect Fletcher knows the truth – he just wants an excuse to aerially elevate his cymbals.
As much as “Whiplash” is Simmons’ movie, Teller’s the one who truly drives himself to the edge of madness. A former rock drummer, he tears into the jazz standards with a maddening pursuit of perfection. Chazelle doesn’t need to hide his star’s hands – they’re there on bloody display, pounding at skins until he’s run out of bandages. Teller brings you in with a face that exudes an innocent charm. He then tosses you out with a boiling intensity level that doesn’t quite sink in until you’ve left the theatre. If a star wasn’t yet born, it is now.
Technically, “Whiplash” is a marvelous assault on the senses. Chazelle and his camera take pleasure on the sweat dripping from Teller’s hair, the blood bursting from his hands, the earth-shattering force of sticks on skins. The film’s shot in as many close-ups as Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables”, but it’s not just faces that Chazelle and his cinematographer, Sharone Meir, are concerned with. It’s a 100-minute wet towel of intensity, with every last drop wrung out.
In Walter Isaacson’s richly detailed Steve Jobs biography, you’ll find yourself constantly wondering how to view the late CEO of Apple. At times, he’s a genius who inspires people to reach far beyond their natural limits. At times, he’s a world-class tyrant who’s lost all basic sense of humanity. Simmons’ (and, in writing, Chazelle’s) Terence Fletcher is like that. You’ll be driven mad by his outbursts. You’ll wonder how any character, fictional or otherwise, could support such a beast. But you won’t turn away. You can’t. This “Whiplash” is good for you. Just ask Fletcher.