In a just world, a film like “Whiplash” would be a frontrunner for Best Picture. Sadly, the Academy cares little about visceral indie films. Sure, J.K. Simmons’ brilliant performance as a drill-sergeant of a conductor won’t go unnoticed, but it probably won’t go all the way. It should.
Music conservatory “freshy” Andrew (Miles Teller) obsessively practices in hope of becoming one of the best drummers in the world. That determination pays off when Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), conductor of the top jazz ensemble in the country, takes the innocent young adult under his wing. Mentorship quickly mutates into something horrifying thanks to Fletcher’s unconventional motivation tactics: throwing a chair at Andrew’s head, verbal abuse and forcing him to play for several hours without stopping with his fingers bleeding.
But Andrew takes it. After all, this is the path to greatness. But the price of glory leads him down a dark path as he ostracizes his family, friends (though his old high school chums do seem rather “toolish”) and even his adorable girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist, known for her depiction of Marley Rose in “Glee”).
This isn’t the film you expect. Well, maybe at first. Simmons’ Fletcher is a truly horrifying dude. But unlike House, Dr. Cox and any number of lovable jerks, this guy terrorizes without a moral lesson at the end.
You’ll cringe when Fletcher throws the chair and asks if Andrew was rushing or lagging, especially when he makes Andrew count in rhythm and begins slapping him, asking if Fletcher lagged with each front-hand.
The title “Whiplash” might superficially refer to the song Andrew plays (though “Caravan” is more pivotal to the plotline), but it really speaks to the emotional tide throughout. Fletcher isn’t just an awful person, or some once traumatized soul taking out his own problems on others. He simply believes that the next great musician needs to be pushed by any means necessary. And if you drop out, you’re not worthy of history’s membrane.
It would be easy to discard Simmons’ performance as caricatured. Who yells that much, using sexist, homophobic and generally revolting language? Moreover, who throws a chair and physically abuses students? Over the top? Perhaps. But many coaches, teachers and conductors — especially conductors in my own experience (I had six in high school alone during my jazz guitar days) — coax students by using very non-politically correct methods.
But rather than demonize the tried-and-true tactics of the past, “Whiplash” actually considers what can be lost if we stop pushing and stop forcing people to do better. By no means does the film depict Fletcher in a positive way, but it does show that pain creates beauty, something many artists often learn the hard way.
What’s a mentor without a mentee? Andrew is the perfect student, but he miserably fails as a human being. But that’s not the point of this story. Girlfriend Nicole and pops, Jim (Paul Reiser), enjoy little screen time. It’s Andrew’s show. But while Simmons steals the show, Miles Teller (soon to be Mr. Fantastic in the “Fantastic Four” reboot) is hardly an amateur.
Playing drums like that for a film takes an incredible level of discipline and talent. Step aside cross training, you want to see real pain? Look at Teller’s face while he practices until the snare drum is discolored from a bloodied right hand desperately trying to keep pace with a tempo with which only a few in the world can keep up. And when he dowses that hand in ice-cold water, I can’t help but imagine “Whiplash” as a spinoff of “Rocky”. Even in pain, he’ll press on.
“Whiplash” is a nostalgic endeavor for any former band geek. It will remind you of all the joys and stresses: spit valves emptied on wood floors, tuning a drum set, asking the pianist for a B-flat and the utter horror of performing without sheet music. For the uninitiated, it’s still a marvelous cinematic experience with one of the best drum solos on screen, and a climactic third act that just might leave you cheering come the credits.
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