By Alex Holzman
“Seemed to me that drumming was the best way to get close to God,” said Lionel Hampton, so nonchalantly, as if to suggest his statement’s obviousness. Less obvious is what type of god.
Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” answers quite simply: an angry one.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a passionate and single-mindedly ambitious jazz drummer at a New York City-based music conservatory, one of the best in the nation. There, Andrew is selected for studio jazz by the infamous Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a genius instructor with “unorthodox” teaching philosophies. Make no mistake, though, Fletcher is no Jaime Escalante or John Keating. He is nothing short of fascistic and utterly abusive. He is a teacher who, during Andrew’s first class, whips a metal chair at his head for not keeping tempo. In an age of gratuitous praise, Fletcher argues, he is the compressive stress that forms a diamond, that crushes insecurity and arrogance alike into unbridled genius. “Whiplash” thrives on the relationship between this professor-student duo: the classical unbreakable object and the unstoppable force dichotomy.
Predictably, this film relies completely on its leads’ performances. Miles Teller of “The Spectacular Now” and “Divergent” is nothing short of excellent. His nebbish appearance and open-mouthed gape conceal an absolutely vicious interior, in more ways than one. Teller, 27, has been drumming recreationally since he was 15, and performed much of the film’s intense drumming sequences himself. During multiple scenes, Andrew drums so savagely that he bleeds, tearing apart scabs and skin and sinew, spattering his kit with gore. As it turns out, only a few of these sequences used effects. For most of them, Teller actually drummed until he bled. For an actor as unfamiliar as Teller, his commitment speaks volumes.
His role demanded a formidable mixture of silence and volume, of cold disconnect and incendiary rage. Teller resoundingly captures all the negativities of ambition: spite, sadness, sacrifice, pain and loss. Hopefully this will be a metamorphic role for Teller, allowing him to widen his appeal into a more spotlighted arena. Regardless, his performance is worthy of very little criticism.
That being said, it’s almost unreal that Simmons’s performance categorically outstrips Teller’s. Simmons comes out of Farmer’s Insurance commercial fame to deliver an absolutely flooring Terrence Fletcher. The way Simmons captures Fletcher’s contained rage is thrillingly palpable, and when he finally unleashes it, he does so with a ferocity that puts even the likes of DeNiro and R. Lee Ermey to shame.
Fletcher is a man of passion – both dark and light – and Simmons embodies it entirely. In a scene where Fletcher shows glimpses of vulnerability – softened tone, wistfulness, tears – Simmons remains utterly believable despite the character’s about-face. The underlying intensity is never lost, and Simmons never falters. This may well be a career-redefining performance. For a respected but very low-key character actor to suddenly and so dramatically take charge of such a competent and lauded film is Cranston-esque. Expect to see Simmons’ name come award season.
In a movie of breakouts, director Damien Chazelle is no exception. “Whiplash” is his feature length debut, and if it’s any indication of what he has to offer, then his name is one to both remember and seek out. The direction of “Whiplash” is stylish, tight and remarkably contained. Chazelle keeps his actors – the film’s obvious centerpiece – in unyielding focus, with only a few very minor extraneous characters. Stylistically, Chazelle’s youth shows through, as his inspirations are sometimes more apparent than his own visions. Certain scenes will be strikingly similar to anyone familiar with Aronofsky or Fincher, with the gratuitous close ups and an almost fetishistic attention to detail. But being compared to two of modern cinema’s most respected auteurs is hardly an insult.
It will be extremely interesting to see where his vision takes us as he matures. Credit must also be given to Tom Cross and Sharone Meir, the editor and cinematographer, respectively. The intoxicating energy of “Whiplash” is a product of their individual talents and their combined synergy with Chazelle and one another. The finale in particular is quite possibly the most thrilling (this reviewer’s viewing companions were visibly shaking) scene of the decade, due solely to the sublime interplay of direction, composition and editing.
“Whiplash” is a movie of extremes in characters, talent and execution. It jams on the razor’s edge, and if it faltered on any vital level, it would crash in a heap of melodrama and cynicism. Yet it never misses a beat, and it always keeps tempo. Fletcher’s philosophy of pushing, pushing, pushing and pressing, pressing, pressing until a diamond appears is vindicated by the film’s mere existence and prowess. From the simple, raw cliché carbon of a teacher-student movie a perfect crystal emerges, thanks to the intense heat and pressure of actors and director alike.
This is the most intense, thrilling, satisfying music movie ever made, equal measures style and substance. I reserve full five-star ratings only for movies which touch me personally and resonate with me in some profoundly subjective sense. This movie touches like a kickdrum and remains with you long after the final beat.