Whiplash (Gold Films, Blumhouse Productions, Right of Way Films, Sierra/Affinity)
A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Written by Damien Chazelle. Executive Producers: Jason Blum, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster.
Welcome to Hell. That should hang on a sign over the entrance to the Shaffer Conservatory, the fictional prestigious music institute that serves as the backdrop for Whiplash. The film tells the story of Andrew Neiman a drummer and first-year Shaffer student, vying for the attention of intense music instructor Terrance Fletcher. “Intense” doesn’t even begin to describe Fletcher. Maniacal. Physically, mentally and psychologically abusive. Rigid. Frightening. Fletcher is Bob Knight, Freddy Krueger, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket and a CIA black ops interrogator all rolled into one. And Fletcher makes it his life’s ambition to break down Andrew, who dreams of being the best drummer since Buddy Rich…if only he could master double time swing (and Fletcher’s meticulous tempo).
J.K. Simmons is absolutely riveting as the sadistic and maniacal Fletcher. Whether piercing students with a string of soul crushing insults or hurling chairs at heads, Simmons’ performance is gigantic and intoxicating. You hate him, but you can’t wait to hear what he says next. Whether intended or not, no other actors who share the screen with Simmons could compete. As Andrew, Miles Teller turns in a solid performance as an up-and-coming talent who rises, falls, rises again, gets knocked down and bleeds all out of a burning desire to be the best.
Credit writer and director Damien Chazelle for Whiplash’s depth and intensity. He constructed a film on the foundation of a great script that captures a behind-the-scenes view of musicians striving for perfection of their craft with authenticity, but is also accessible and equally fascinating to the wider audience. Music nerds the world around will likely identify with scenes where Andrew tends to his bloodied hands and bloodied kit from practicing. And anyone who’s ever been under the thumb of an overbearing teacher or coach will most certainly identify with all the musicians whose anxiety levels reach fever pitch when Fletcher enters a room.
Where Chazelle also nails it is in the musical performance scenes. Many films with similar storylines fail to achieve authenticity. But Chazelle made certain to get the performance scenes correct and it mades Whiplash that much more enjoyable. But at the end of the day, it’s J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher who makes this film pop off the screen.
The beauty of Whiplash is that it tells a great story with big performances from its lead actors and retains its gritty, lo-fi, indie film integrity. It’s not trying to be a big, Hollywood flick because it doesn’t need to. Whiplash didn’t go Hollywood because Hollywood came to Whiplash.
RATING: **** stars (out of 5)