With only a handful of credits and just one feature under his belt, Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has made a revelatory film in his Academy Award winning Whiplash. J.K. Simmons, Editor Tom Cross and Sound Mixers Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley all won Oscars for their work on Whiplash, but it was Chazelle’s vision and passion that got them on the awards stage. Not only does he capture the drive it takes to become a professional musician, but he shows the physicality involved to become one of the few to play at Lincoln Center. Anyone who has ever sat down in a school band and felt the pressure to be the best will appreciate this film; they may even break out into a cold sweat.
Miles Teller, who had his own breakout year in 2013 with The Spectacular Now, stars as Andrew, a first year drum set player at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. His goal is the same as every player that walks the halls of that school: to be the best. With posters of Buddy Rich adorning his walls and an endless loop of the greatest jazz drummer to ever live playing through his headphones, Andrew is relentless in his pursuit to play for the Shaffer Studio band, headed up by the notorious, but brilliant, Terrence Fletcher (Simmons).
From the very beginning, Fletcher sees something in Andrew, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make Andrew the best, even if it means throwing a chair at him, humiliating him in front of the rest of the band, or pushing him so hard that the blisters on his hands are bleeding on the skins of the drums. Andrew gives up everything to please Fletcher. But it never seems to be enough. Is Fletcher really doing everything within his power to make Andrew a better player, or is he a megalomaniac who gets off on torturing his pupils. The way Simmons plays it, the answer may be a little of both.
Some of you may watch Whiplash and question whether a music teacher would actually be as unforgiving and cruel as Fletcher. Just like a football coach or a top chef screaming and punishing their star pupils, the demand for excellence in music is the same. Having been in college bands, I can recall seeing the look pressure on the faces of my friends when they were out of tune or missed their cue during a rehearsal. Imagine being in a room with someone you respect the upmost and they hold your fate in their hands. Now imagine having your dream of being one of the best players in the world rest in the fate of one man. You can see how this stress could push someone to the edge, and how that power could make the teacher an egomaniac.
Despite an forgivable plot point in act three that I thought was a bit of a stretch, I love this movie. This minor quibble sets up the exhilarating climax of the movie. Kudos to Chazelle for having the balls to show a ten minute performance of ”Caravan” in its entirety, complete with drum solo. As a drummer myself, I was impressed with how well Teller pulled off his percussion playing. Was he playing live throughout the whole movie? I’m not going to say. Why ruin the illusion?
Simmons has received the lion’s share of accolades for Whiplash, all of them deserved, but Teller needs to be recognized, as well. Andrew grows from an intimidated youngster into a confident and reckless man over the course of a few months. Teller really makes you feel for Andrew, even when the pressure he’s under turns him into a prick. You can’t help feeling some empathy for him, considering that his role model is Fletcher, and his idol is the notoriously merciless Buddy Rich.
Chazelle not only directed two of the finest performances of 2014, but he also captured the excitement and thrill of music surging through a musician’s body. When the horns come in the first time Fletcher’s band plays ”Whiplash,” I got chills. If you’ve ever been in an jazz or concert band, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of unity and pride when three or four people are playing together in harmony, and a band is working on all cylinders. Chazelle captures that feeling. Together with his editor, Cross, the look and dynamism of Whiplash matches the brilliance of Teller and Simmons.
The hallmark of a great film is how soon after watching it do I want to go right back into it. Whiplash has been on my mind ever since I watched last Saturday, and I can’t wait to dive back in.