Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a film that left me breathless and physically exhausted when I got up to walk out of the theater, and all I had done for the past hour and forty minutes was lounge in a theater recliner and watch somebody else work themselves into a sweaty mess. A good film about motivation and determination leaves you humbled, but a great film about the same subjects leaves you emotionally drained and even enraged; enraged from watching others bring the lead character down and even attempt to compromise his or her dreams. The film may even leave you determined to exercise your own dreams out to a fuller extent, not compromising your talents or adhering to requirements, and realizing what makes you happy may not make others happy, but those others aren’t you or likely sleeping in the same bed as you.
Whiplash is a contemplative film in that regard; a film that earns every word of praise and every glowing adjective on its theatrical poster and the many accolades it has received. It’s a film that gives you the heartbreak of perceived failure and allows you to be affected by the few words of praise the lead character receives as well as every negative drawback and vulgar criticism (and there are plenty here). The film concerns Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a nineteen-year-old first year student at Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious music school. Andrew is a drummer, but not your typical “I’m in a band, drummer;” his goal is to go down as one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, etching himself alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker. At first, we, the audience, may sneer at his dreams, but it’s cool; Andrew couldn’t care less. When we see him practice until his hands are calloused and bleeding excessively from the tight grip of his drumsticks is when we see his determination is real. When we see him tear through his drumset, banging his sticks angrily on his symbols and throwing his kit across the stage is when we truly realize his drive to be the best he can be.
Andrew’s entire world is tested when he meets Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an uncommonly strict music teacher, who has no problem making his classmates stay until 2:00AM to get the music notes right or sees anything wrong with throwing a chair at one of his students who can’t keep up with his tempo. His personality is vulgar, blatantly calling his students two demeaning twelve-letter words, along with some other homemade curse words himself, giving these kids more discipline than they’ve ever been granted in their lives. Fletcher doesn’t just push kids past their limit; he pushes them into mentally-corrupting realms, boldly stating to Andrew, “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Beneath an incorruptible drive in Andrew is a tend
er, soft soul at first, who sheds a single tear when Fletcher vulgarly criticizes him for the first time. “What am I, a double rainbow?,” he asks Andrew, spitting and contorting his face in various ways. Fletcher is a no-nonsense guy, and no better to play him than the incorrigible character actor Simmons himself. The man who played a contemptible, vile subhuman in HBO’s Oz gives probably his most engaging performance yet as one of film’s strictest, most uncompromising professors. His intensity is heightened to the point where we, the audience, feel compelled to lift our theater seats, despite them being bolted to the ground, and hurl them at his character, calling him every disgusting name he has called his students.
I’ve said before that Teller is on his way to becoming a truly remarkable actor, after performances in The Spectacular Now and Two Night Stand show true promise as a human leading male and Whiplash will be one of the various used to iterate that point to others. Teller communicates not only the attitude but the mentality and the realism of these characters, becoming not just a person for his films, but an attitude and a personality, throwing himself into the mindset of a dateless loser, a teenage alcoholic, or, in this case, an incomparably determined music student. His performance here is by far his most amazing work.
Whiplash also features a beautiful score and live orchestra music, maybe not in the opinion of Simmons’ Fletcher, who would probably ostracize it as a contribution to the downfall of contemporary jazz, but sounds absolutely incredible. The piece of music Whiplash, played frequently in the film, is a mesmerizing and relaxing piece of music, contrasting the film’s breakneck tone. On top of that, the editing style of the film, done by Tom Cross, is a visually arresting art here, consistently captivating us with briskly-paced scenes of literal blood and sweat and close-ups of a wide variety of musical instruments as they are both prepared and played.
Much will be made about the ending; some will love it, others will say it’s incomplete. I find it to be satisfying, if disheartening. While audiences, after giving it enough thought and credit, will likely be pleased, they may realize a deeper sadness and that sadness is simple – where is Andrew going after this? Without divulging into spoiler territory, it’s something every artist faces after his or her best work and it’s a terrifying thought. For a film with such a quiet, almost devastating, ending, Whiplash sure gave me one of the most satisfying movie experiences of the year.
NOTE: As of this writing, Whiplash is streaming on Tubi and YouTube, free of charge.
Starring: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, and Melissa Benoist. Directed by: Damien Chazelle.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!