Whiplash

You don’t have to have a working knowledge of jazz music or history to be riveted by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; all that’s required is a working knowledge of dreams and how they function. Dreams in a figurative sense, that is, as this blistering psychological drama takes you into the vulnerable headspace of a talented young jazz drummer...read more

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You don’t have to have a working knowledge of jazz music or history to be riveted by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; all that’s required is a working knowledge of dreams and how they function. Dreams in a figurative sense, that is, as this blistering psychological drama takes you into the vulnerable headspace of a talented young jazz drummer suffering acute mental anguish under the tutelage of his relentless music instructor -- a man driven by the singular goal of molding the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich.

For as long as Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) can remember, he's been watching his father fail. Determined to make a name for himself no matter what it takes, he enrolls in a prestigious East Coast music conservatory. His talent quickly catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an esteemed music teacher who's notorious for his caustic approach in the classroom. The leader of the school's top jazz ensemble, Fletcher promptly transfers Neyman into his band, giving the ambitious young drummer a shot at true greatness. He may achieve it, too -- if Neyman's methods don't drive him to madness first.

We’ve all had those teachers whose expectations seem somewhat unrealistic, but Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is much more than that: Like a volatile mix of Swimming With Sharks’ Buddy Ackerman and Full Metal Jacket’s Gny. Sgt. Hartman, he’s an absolute force of nature who’s capable of summoning a hurricane in the blink of an eye. A veteran supporting player whose recognition is long overdue, Simmons is nothing short of terrifying in his portrayal of a teacher who wouldn’t think twice about breaking 100 students if it meant that one had a shot at legendary status. Unlike those aforementioned antagonists, however, the thing that makes this character so positively compelling are the nuances with which Chazelle paints him in the film’s uncompromisingly intense screenplay, as well as the seemingly effortless manner by which Simmons can turn from soulful to savage in the clash of a cymbal. From the moment we first encounter Fletcher, it’s apparent that he has a reputation, and though his gruffness is almost endearing at first glance, the manner in which he manipulates young Andrew during his very first session with the band hints at something far more sadistic beneath the surface. Fletcher would have been completely unsympathetic in almost any other film, but together with Chazelle, Simmons reveals the character’s human side at just the right intervals to make him utterly fascinating.

Of course, a character of such stern conviction can’t exist in a vacuum, and in talented up-and-comer Miles Teller, Chazelle finds the perfect foil for Fletcher’s unrelenting wrath. In his role as the young drummer as determined to succeed as Fletcher is to break him, Teller portrays a potent mix of ambition, vulnerability, and hubris that leaves him particularly susceptible to his teacher’s ethically compromised methods. He also sells his performance scenes with sweaty conviction, a factor that gives his character’s obsessive drive to become “one of the greats” true substance. But while each scene between Teller and Simmons bristles with tension, the scenes that find Neyman pulling away from seemingly perfect match Nicole (Melissa Benoist) exist solely to emphasize his all-consuming focus on drumming. As a result, they’re more functional than profound, despite a commendable effort from charismatic Glee veteran Benoist.

Far more interesting and relevant are the moments between Neyman and his father (Paul Reiser), an aspiring writer-turned-teacher who has long since given up on his dreams, yet never wavers in support of his son. In addition to providing a satisfying contrast against his onscreen son’s swelling hubris, Reiser’s paternal warmth delivers a much needed respite from Simmons’ severe volatility.

But make no mistake: It’s Simmons’ explosive, career-defining performance that really brings Whiplash to life. His Fletcher is a deeply passionate, fatally flawed character whose obsession with molding the next jazz great has clouded his good intentions with inky, malicious acidity. We never quite know what to expect from him, especially after his relationship with Neyman has gone beyond the breaking point, and that’s the singular factor that gives their final confrontation a near-agonizing intensity. Even with an experienced veteran like Simmons firing on all cylinders, that’s an impressive feat for a first-time director, and should Chazelle succeed in summoning a fraction of that passion in his future films, he’s unlikely to be just another one-hit wonder.

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  • Released: 2014
  • Rating: R
  • Review: You don’t have to have a working knowledge of jazz music or history to be riveted by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; all that’s required is a working knowledge of dreams and how they function. Dreams in a figurative sense, that is, as this blis… (more)

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