Whiplash (2014)

Posted: September 30, 2015 in Movie Review
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Whiplash (2014)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

I was somewhere around my mid-20’s before I was able to fully appreciate jazz music. Pity, because as a trumpet player in my high school concert band, I could have easily signed up for the jazz band as well. Jazz has a certain energy to it that no other form of music can quite match. You can feel the passion that goes into every performance. (If you can’t, then you know it’s not being done quite right.) Good jazz grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go until the final note has been played. Movies have the same potential to capture their audience’s attention. The good ones are an amusing way to spend a couple of hours of your life. The great ones, like “Whiplash,” are an unforgettable experience that you wish didn’t have to end.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz student at New York’s Shaffer Conservatory, dreams of one day taking his skills as a drummer to another level. Andrew doesn’t just want to be great; he wants to be one of THE greats. One day, while practicing, he captures the attention of respected conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew is invited by Fletcher to join his studio band as an alternate to the core drummer. To Andrew, this guy seems warm and friendly. Quickly, however, Fletcher’s abusive, sociopathic perfectionist side is revealed as he verbally berates any and all band members who display even the slightest inability to keep tempo. Andrew himself draws Fletcher’s wrath during a rehearsal of Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” after which he practices hard enough to take what he sees as his rightful place as core drummer.

During this same time, Andrew enters into a relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet movie theater concessionist and student at Fordham University. Almost right away, it’s clear this pairing will never last. Andrew is driven, with a clear career path in mind. Nicole, on the other hand, hasn’t a clue what she wants to do with her life, doesn’t have a major and, being from out of town, doesn’t even like the school she attends. It’s difficult to glean just what, if anything, the two might have in common. Citing his need to concentrate on his drumming, Andrew confesses that Nicole will be too much of a distraction and decides that a clean break would be better than a long drawn-out period of pointless arguing, neglect and resentment between them.

A tragic story relayed by a tearful Fletcher about a former student who died in a car accident serves as as sign of things to come when, late for a competition, Andrew himself gets into a (non-life threatening) car accident. His injuries cause him to badly flub his performance, upon which Fletcher informs Andrew that he is “done.” Pushed to his breaking point, Andrew attacks Fletcher in a moment of pure rage, an action which gets him expelled from Shaffer. It turns out that Fletcher’s former student who died had actually killed himself. In a moment of total submission, the parents’ lawyer acquires Andrew’s anonymous testimony of abusive behavior from Fletcher, which gets the conductor fired from Shaffer.

Part of Andrew’s need to make something of himself as a musician has been rooted in his situation back home. His mother left him and his father when Andrew was very young. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is a schoolteacher, but one who has done nothing to distinguish himself. No one in his family encourages his drumming; in fact, Andrew is only ever asked about it as a courtesy. His father sees it as a way for him to burn out fast and die young. The only source of approval left to Andrew was Fletcher. Now with that bridge seemingly burned, Andrew appears ready to abandon his dream. Flash forward to several months later, where Andrew wanders into a jazz club where Fletcher is a guest performer. The two meet, have a talk, and before you know it Fletcher has convinced Andrew into playing for his band at a festival concert. It is there that Fletcher reveals that he knew all along that it was Andrew who got him fired. No “Godfather”-like kiss of death here. An attempt at public humiliation almost results in Andrew leaving the stage for good, but he defiantly returns to perform the drum solo of his life. It is in this moment that Andrew has pushed himself beyond his perceived limitations, Fletcher has found his prodigy and Andrew’s father, who genuinely loves him, has learned some things about his son that he might have known years ago had he only thought to pay more attention.

Performances such as these cannot be adequately described with words. They must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. The music, although not as good as when performed by the artists who originally created them, is still superb. In particular, “Whiplash” and “Caravan” (the song that brings the house down at film’s end) are my favorites. As good as the music is, the acting is that much more astonishing. I’d never heard of Miles Teller before seeing “Whiplash,” but I hope I’ll see more of him soon and that the awful “Fantastic Four” reboot won’t do any permanent damage. Then, of course, there’s J.K. Simmons. I’m not sure where I first saw this guy in action, but the earliest thing I remember is 2002’s “Spider-Man,” where he played the perfect J. Jonah Jameson. He’s since put on memorable supporting performances in movies like “Juno” and “Burn After Reading,” as well as featuring in TV’s “The Closer” opposite Kyra Sedgwick. Not to mention those funny Farmers Insurance commercials. But it’s Simmons’ turn as Terence Fletcher which is his finest work to date. It’s thanks to him most of all that “Whiplash” will be remembered for years to come.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    What an EXCELLENT review! I can add nothing except to say that I also highly recommend the movie.

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