I went into Whiplash with some considerable excitement: I myself am a drummer, and the badass improvised drums that scored Birdman last week have got me dying to hit the skins and delve back into that world a bit. There was a time when I thought about going to a school not unlike the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in Whiplash. I eventually went a different route, but that desperate need to improve, to be the best, to play until you physically cannot–and then play some more–is something that has stuck with me, and is a big part of what makes Whiplash so incredibly powerful.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man enrolled at the Shaffer Conservatory in NYC who aims to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. He's talented, for sure, but he has one major obstacle in his way, a legendarily brutal instructor named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who conducts the prestigious studio band. The film is very tightly focused on the relationship between these two, and the intense drama that flares up as they clash.
J.K. Simmons is totally terrifying. While I might suggest that those with anxiety issues or stage fright steer clear of the movie, I mean this as a compliment: his portrayal of Fletcher's cruelty is both wince-worthy and creative, and is more than a little reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. His taunts get personal and violent, his revenge horrifying, but it is all sold by Simmons' excellent performance, which occasionally lets us see his more human side before he spews more hateful 'coaching' at his students. That isn't to say that Miles Teller doesn't shine too; while some of the few talking heads scenes feel just a little forced, the physicality of his performance on the drum kit and otherwise is impressive to say the least.
Teller's believability on the drums was a big worry for me going into the movie, but aside from some very nitpicky bits that more than likely would only be spotted by fellow drummers, it works extremely well. Teller clearly trained not unlike his character to be able to pull off convincing performances on the drums, which makes it easy to get absorbed in his struggle. While his playing is notably impressive, smart editing, framing, and audio work also makes this story extremely compelling and believable for musicians and non-musicians alike.
The look at tone of the movie is evocative of The Social Network, both in the old hallowed halls of the school and the smooth movements of the camera. While we gradually learn about Andrew and Fletcher throughout the movie, we never quite get in Andrew's head. Instead, we see him almost solely through his actions, which makes for a much more compelling movie-going experience. While we occasionally make quick cuts to accentuate the physicality of Teller's playing, often the camera holds on the pained and intense faces of its leading characters, letting the actors' expressions and movements tell us more than plain exposition could.
Whiplash repeatedly asks the question, does greatness come from cruelty, and is it worth it? There's a story that is told throughout the film about Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist: that during his first big tryout, he had a cymbal hurled at his head and was laughed out of the room. To Fletcher, it was that violent action that sparked Parker to improve, that if the band had been satisfied with his mediocrity, the world would never know one of Jazz's tremendous talents. The movie places us along with Andrew in a position in which life hardly matters without greatness, that to be content is the worst of crimes. Whiplash does an excellent job of putting the audience in that mindset, creating a crushing boredom and banality to the day-to-day conversations Andrew has outside of his school work.
The extended final scene in which Andrew seeks the ultimate approval from Fletcher onstage in front of thousands while Fletcher seeks to push him over the edge is intense to the nth degree. The literal blood, sweat, and tears that litter the drums and splash off the cymbals only augment the fiery rivalry between Andrew and Fletcher. Whiplash is unique in that it looks on the surface to be an inspirational tale, but its narrative framing and the simple fact that it is fictional make it far more interesting. This isn't the story of Elvin Jones or Buddy Rich; we don't know if Andrew will reach those heights or not, so the movie wavers between inspiration and defeat expertly, and puts a dark, almost sadistic twist on the traditional man against the world narrative.
While the movie might be uniquely enjoyable to musicians and drummers, it is miles away from being exclusive; the intensity of the performances and the taut storytelling will no doubt draw the most unwilling viewer in. The music is great, the characters are fascinating, and the physicality of the story and performances is both unique and unforgettable. Whiplash is definitely a standout going into the Oscar season and actually achieves what it's characters so perilously seek: greatness.
Verdict: For Immediate Consumption