I didn't rush out to see "Whiplash", the new film from writer - director Damien Chazelle (writer of "The Last Exorcism II") starring Miles Teller as a young music school student and J.K. Simmons as his sadistic instructor. In each of the previous films I have seen Teller (“That Awkward Moment”, “Divergent”), he has been unexceptional and the trailer seemed to paint Simmons as a major scenery chewer. So I sort- of avoided it despite the huge number of accolades.
I just saw it and was surprised how good "Whiplash" actually is, it works a little bit of magic. Watching the film, my misgivings slowly gave way to becoming completely wrapped up in the story of the relationship between these two men.
Andrew (Teller) is a new student at a prestigious music academy in New York. For as long as he can remember, he has loved playing the drums, and he is excited to finally be at a music school that will allow him the opportunity to refine and hone his skills. One day, while practicing in an empty classroom, he attracts the attention of Fletcher (Simmons, TV's "The Closer", lots of voices for animation, spokesman for Farmer’s Insurance, "Men, Woman and Children"), the leader of the jazz band at the school. Fletcher is intrigued and pays a visit to Andrew's class. Soon, Andrew is the back-up drummer for Fletcher who turns out to be on sadistic SOB. He quickly makes Andrew the lead drummer, and then begins to make the young man's life hell as he pushes and pushes his new drummer to become worthy of his new position. The pressure puts a strain on Andrew's relationship with his dad (Paul Reiser) and forces him to reconsider his new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, TV's "Glee"). Soon, everything in Andrew's life is drumming, in an effort to gain the approval of Fletcher.
The few times I have seen Teller, I haven't been that impressed, especially in "That Awkward Moment", a lame romantic comedy starring Zac Efron, Teller and Michael P. Jordan as three friends trying to navigate the romance waters of New York City. But in "Whiplash", Teller reaches a new height of intensity that you don't often see. As Andrew, Teller shows what it is like to be an artist who doesn't have an outlet. He sleeps, eats, bleeds drumming and wants to be the next Charlie Parker (I know, not a drummer, but there are multiple references to the great saxophonist, making him the benchmark to strive for). Andrew attends his music class, sitting in the back-up seat, turning the pages of the music for the lead saxophonist. He knows this is a necessary step, he has to pay his dues. But you can see the energy of his talent just bursting at the seams, trying to get out. When Fletcher chooses him for the well-respected jazz ensemble, he recognizes this is a chance to move forward and get a little jump start. His job? Back-up drummer for the ensemble. But Fletcher is a demanding boss and quickly makes Andrew the drummer. The new job does not come without its costs; Fletcher is determined to have only the best musicians in his group and he pushes and pushes Andrew, determined to get the best from the young man. Despite the demands of this, Andrew soon realizes his professor won't stop until he gets the best, so his determination increases ten-fold.
As we watch Andrew, we can see the desire oozing from his every pore. And as someone who has been chasing his own dream for years, I recognize this in Andrew. It is Teller who illustrates this in Andrew, and the actor is clearly drawing from his own personal experience to bring this aspect of the young musician to life. It is a really well-done performance from Teller and comes as a surprise because there has been little evidence the actor was capable of such work. I suspect that he might switch back and forth between bigger studio projects and smaller, more independent fare. He is already doing this to a certain extent and it seems like a good practice for most people in the entertainment business. Balance the big-budget studio work, done to increase star power and make the career more viable, with independent films and better performances to garner acclaim and prove that you are an actor with some talent. Many stars and directors do this, and it seems to be a better plan than simply sticking with big budget and the requisite large paychecks because if you have one flop, your career can flame out pretty quickly.
This is a very good performance - we always see the will to succeed behind the young musician's eyes. And when he gets over the initial shock of the excessive training methods of his mentor, he seems to get slightly used to them and drives himself to achieve even higher standards. At one point, when Fletcher threatens to take the lead position away from Andrew, this only serves to drive him more, and he begins to fight back, letting nothing stand in his way. Which is really what Fletcher was looking for in the first place.
J.K. Simmons is a well-known actor with numerous television and film credits. He is a character actor, the type of performer you cast as a psychiatrist, or dad, or cop, to add depth and interest to your film. In "Whiplash", he takes center stage as Fletcher, the leader of the jazz ensemble. During his first encounter with Andrew, he displays what we might call eccentric behavior, giving us a strange, undefined misgiving about him. But Andrew brushes it off.
As Andrew arrives for his first session with the band, he sees more things that should be raising some alarms. When Fletcher arrives, every member of the band immediately becomes silent and lowers their heads slightly, awaiting instructions. Another red flag. As the band begins to practice, Fletcher notices something is off and begins to zero in on a band member who is out of tune. After a few minutes of degradation, the band member is sent packing. Everyone else seems used to this sort of behavior from their leader, so no one says anything. If they did say something, they would get the boot, that much is clear. Then, he turns his attention to Andrew.
Simmons turns in one of the most focused performances I have seen in years. Every moment, Fletcher demonstrates his erratic behavior, making requests that seem out of the ordinary and intense, but really aren't all that unusual in the performing arts. What is unusual is the severity of the interactions between Fletcher and his targets. Many mentors have driven their charges to become better actors, writers, singers, musicians, painters, by driving them, challenging them to achieve new highs. But Fletcher goes to extremes. And the performance is mesmerizing because it seems all-encompassing.
And Simmons makes this feel almost like a roller-coaster ride - one minute, the ride is climbing a new hill, reaching the top, our anticipation about to break, then the ride screams down the other side before going into an inversion and looping, everyone screaming for their dear lives.
Writer/ Director Damien Chazelle initially created a short version of this film, also starring Simmons. Using that, he was able to get the backing to make this feature-length version. And it is very good, very engrossing, and real edge-of-your seat entertainment. You spend a lot of time wondering if and when Andrew will finally blow and start to fight back. It is a small-scale film; everything is shot in interiors, making the narrative feel a little more closed in and claustrophobic. This budget-based decision actually helps to make the film better.
While most of the film concentrates on Andrew and Fletcher, there are a few scenes depicting other parts of their lives that also help to open up the film. At one point, Andrew and his dad go to dinner at the aunt and uncle's house. Later, Fletcher plays piano at a jazz club. They give depth to the story and actually help to make it seem more insular, because you realize these two really never escape the confines of their artistic dreams.
"Whiplash" is a very good film and will keep you riveted to your seat.