“I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody's idea of success.”
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is one of the best films of 2014. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t much of a music fan (I’m not), because there is much more going on here than the simple premise of a young drummer trying to achieve perfection. I don’t know much about jazz or music, but somehow Chazelle managed to make one of the most intense films of the year. Who would’ve thought that a film focusing on a relationship between a young drummer and his mentor could be so intense and have you at the edge of your seat during the final ten minutes of the film? It was quite a memorable experience. This is Chazelle’s sophomore film (his debut film was Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) and you can already conclude he’s a brilliant director and one to look forward to. He’s as determined as the main protagonist of the film. When he wasn’t able to come up with the funding for this film he decided to make a 20 minute short which debuted at Sundance in 2013 and after garnering attention from critics he was able to finance this film. Perfection comes at a great cost and it requires discipline and practice. Chazelle makes sure we understand that this pursuit of perfection comes at a great cost and he lets the audience decide wether it’s worth the price or not. Whiplash is one of those rare films that leaves you with many different things to think about. It raises so many questions: Does the end justify the means? Is the pursuit of perfection possible? Is it really worth all the sacrifice? and the most important question in my opinion; what is our definition of success? The young drummer in this film played brilliantly by Miles Teller (who had a breakout year in 2013) seems to have his mind made up of what success really means, but is he right? The director avoids taking sides and lets the audience come up with their own conclusions. There is a brilliant scene where Teller’s character is courting a girl and telling her about his goals in life, and his reaction is brilliant when the girl (played by Melissa Benoist) doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life. He is so determined and focused that he finds it confusing that someone could live without this sort of ambition. These small scenes are what makes this movie so great because it allows us to learn new things about each character through these interactions.
The core of this film is without a doubt the relationship between this aspiring young drummer and his abusive mentor. It is very different from most other mentor-student relationships explored in movies in the past and it avoids falling into similar formulas and cliches found in other films. This isn’t the cool teacher, this is someone whose personal philosophy is about pushing his students to sacrifice everything in their lives to pursue greatness and the only way to do so in his opinion is by pushing and bullying his students to the point of breaking them. It is the opposite of what a mentor like Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society is like towards his students (and most films take a similar approach having an inspirational and caring mentor). But in Whiplash J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher is the complete opposite and he psychologically terrorizes his students. You can feel the fear he installs in the students and his presence alone every time he enters a room is felt. Simmons’ performance is the best I’ve seen all year and he delivers in every scene he’s in. He is the main reason why the film is as intense as it is because every time Teller’s Andrew gets in front of the drums we feel that anxiety and tension. We want him to succeed, but at times the cost seems too high. Simmons’ presence is terrifying and even when he seems to be cooled down we know that he can burst in any moment with a missed note. The way he verbally assaults and demolishes his students is also a troubling part of the film because as an audience we know that it is wrong but we can’t help but chuckle at some of the things he’s saying. His character is almost cartoonish at times, but it is part of his persona because he thinks it is the only way to push his students to become the best. As good as Simmons is in this film, Miles Teller doesn’t allow him to steal the spotlight. Teller is the lead character in this film and even when Simmons isn’t on screen we are engaged with the story. The moments he is interacting with Nicole, the girl he is dating, and with his father (played by Paul Reiser) are also incredibly well constructed and they say a lot about who each character is. These relationships give us a glimpse of who Andrew really is and what drives him. Teller’s performance is solid and even his drum skills are amazing in this film. The entire cast is fantastic, but of course Simmons receives most of the recognition because his presence on screen is just amazing here.
Whiplash shows us that fine line between perfection and obsession. Andrew sacrifices so much and is always pushed to the limits by Fletcher and it leaves us wondering if it really is worth it. It’s such a powerful film and I’m sure jazz fans will love it even more because the music here is great. The film has a breathtaking ten minute finale as well that will leave your heart pounding. There are so many other aspects of the film that work so well, like the rapid editing that goes along with the jazz beats. The cinematography is also gorgeous. Everything about this film is great and the performances simply elevate it all. The only reason why I’m not calling it a masterpiece is because it does have some issues during the midsection of the film with some rather implausible scenes, but other than that this is a perfect film. I may be demanding too much out of this film like Fletcher is with his students, so it barely misses the perfect note but it is one of the best films of the year. The more you think about it the more you take out of it. I even found an interesting metaphor out of this pursuit for greatness comparing it to with how the American military works trying to build the perfect army because in a way Fletcher’s techniques are similar to those that generals use (therefor the comparisons of Simmons performance to that of Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket).