The low-key, realistic musical is rare enough in the realm of film. Recently we were treated to John Carney’s follow-up to Once, the incredibly charming Begin Again; besides that, it’s difficult to think of a film in which the musical numbers actually spawn from the conscious act of creation instead of being used as a tool to advance the plot or explain to the audience the emotions which the characters are experiencing. In director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, we are treated to a very different type of musical. There is no breezy, indie quality to this story, nor is there anything resembling charm, and that’s a good thing, for this is a tale of art and obsession. In a way, Whiplash could be described as a musical thriller; an odd mix, certainly, but one that is not foreign to Chazelle, who also penned one of my favorite movies from last year, the awesome and regretfully under-seen, Grand Piano. Though more firmly set in reality, Whiplash loses none of Grand Piano’s tension, exchanging life and death stakes for something more cerebral, a multifaceted examination of a two-pronged question: 1) How far should an artist go to achieve greatness? 2) How far should an instructor go to push said artist to reach their full potential? These questions form the foundation of the film as it examines the antagonistic, abusive, and often inspirational relationship between a music student and his instructor.
The student in question is Andrew, a drummer of incredible talent who hopes to one day surpass Buddy Rich. Andrew is attending a prestigious music academy in New York City. One day he manages to catch the eye of Fletcher, the intimidating instructor of the school’s most elite jazz band, gaining entrance through an impromptu audition. Though jazzed (sorry) about his acceptance into the band, his elation is immediately crushed as he comes to learn just how determined Fletcher is to get the best performance out of his players. What starts out as a relationship between teacher and student becomes something adversarial and ugly as obsession drives both men to strive for excellence regardless of consequences.
This film is built upon two outstanding performances. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) delivers a performance worthy of the highest praise. His Andrew is a relatable everyman with one very important distinction: his drive. Teller’s performance of Andrew possesses every quality in perfect measure; Andrew is awkward, yet not comically so, and charming in his own right, without ever coming off as hokey. Andrew’s gradual transformation by his pursuit (equal parts triumphant and saddening) as the film progresses is completely believable and utterly compelling. However this is not a one man show, and J.K. Simmons astounds as Fletcher, Andrew’s vitriolic, expletive-spewing instructor. Simmons’ Fletcher is a wonderfully thought-provoking enigma, supportive in one moment and abusive in the next; his perfect manipulation of his students and Andrew in particular is something to behold. His hate-filled tirades will have you laughing in discomfort at the utter precision in which he deconstructs his students in order to build them back up, striving to push them beyond their preconceived limits. Simmons mercurial performance is one of such subtlety that the changes in Fletcher’s demeanor at any given moment never come off as jarring, but rather as the conscious decisions of a man bent on achieving excellence. The interplay between Teller and Simmons is something to behold and as Andrew improves and Fletcher grows even more venomous, the film builds steadily to a potent and memorable climax. Hopefully Teller and Simmons will both receive nominations for their inspired work here.
Though largely focused upon the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher, the film’s two supporting characters are also excellent in the small amount of screen time that they have. Melissa Benoist plays Nicole, Andrew’s crush and eventual girlfriend. Benoist’s performance is earnest and heartfelt despite her brief time in the film. Nicole, unlike Andrew, has no idea what life has in store for her, but is relatively unfettered by that fact in contrast to Andrew’s tireless striving towards musical perfection. She represents the outsider, one that is only offered a glimpse of creative madness and is perplexed and frightened by what she finds there; her reaction to Andrew’s growing obsession feels very authentic. Paul Reiser is the other ancillary character of note, playing Jim, Andrew’s father. Reiser is pitch-perfect as a proud father who both loves and supports his son, while harboring valid concerns about the lengths to which Andrew and Fletcher will go for their music.
On a technical level, Whiplash combines dynamic cinematography (from Sharone Meir) and imaginative direction from Chazelle to create a visually stimulating film that manages to convey the driving, percussive nature of the musical performances showcased therein. The music, by Justin Hurwitz, is absolute perfection, conveying the frenzy and controlled chaos of jazz in a way that will make the Layman understand its indescribable draw. All of these aspects, from direction, to cinematography, to the score, and performances, all build to what can only be described as a musical showdown that left me stunned.
All in all, Whiplash is one of the best films I have seen this year; it’s simply brilliant. If it happens to be playing near you, it’s definitely worth the price of admission.