The road to greatness for Andrew (Miles Teller) is filled with unexpected turns, bloody hands, and plenty of insults in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. And I do mean lots and lots of insults. Creative, brutal and often hilarious insults that would make R. Lee Ermey’s Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant very proud.
Andrew is a freshman at New York’s storied Shaffer Conservatory music school where he’s following his dream of being a drummer. He aspires to be Buddy Rich and his raw talent is undeniable. Another legendary musical icon mentioned often is Charlie Parker and the alleged tale of him achieving greatness when Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at his head to make him try harder. Andrew’s Jo Jones is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), his teacher and conductor who consistently berates his pupils in the aforementioned imaginative ways. He’s not adverse to throwing whatever is lying around either. Fletcher uses any information at his disposal to hurl his verbal abuse, including the fact that Andrew’s mother abandoned him as a child. There are no off limits for Fletcher, yet he believes his actions are warranted for his kids to reach their full potential.
Perhaps they are. Whiplash does a remarkable job at not making its two main characters anything resembling caricatures. Just when we want to despise everything about Fletcher, he does something to give you pause. Andrew is far from perfect as well and we see that in his half hearted efforts at a relationship with a young Fordham student (Melissa Benoist). He is on a self appointed track to become the next Buddy Rich and any extracurricular activity is not needed in his mind.
Whiplash has gained most of its publicity from the work of J.K. Simmons and there’s reason for it. His performance will stay with you. It’s a triumph of acting that will and should earn this fine character actor a gold statue. That said, the performance of Teller is key and as he’s already proven in The Spectacular Now – his young John Cusack quality fits in well here. Paul Reiser has some good moments as Andrew’s supportive father.
Chazelle’s effort is a master class in editing and sound work. The musical performances (the pic gets its title from one of their pieces) are something to behold. Whiplash follows the storyline of many teacher/pupil relationship movies, but adds a whole lot of original spin. You’ll leave with the music in your head and most of all – Fletcher’s quick tongue. The screenplay is smart enough to leave it to us to decide whether Andrew’s journey to perceived perfection is worth it. For us it’s definitely a journey worth taking.
***1/2 (out of four)