2015 is a year of big, spectacular movies that will undoubtedly boast several character showdowns to shake the heavens. So it says an awful lot that all the Ultrons, Mad Maxes, Jurassic killers and Jedi Knights of this year will have their work cut out for them to even compete with much less beat the titanic edge-of-your-seat final act duel witnessed in the closing moments of sophomore writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. Swapping out explosions and computer generated impossibilities for explosive acting and nigh-impossible musical performances, that finale much like the rest of this drumming drama is a literal blood, sweat and tears affair that will leave you as breathless and wrung-out as star Miles Teller after completing his jaw-dropping drum solos.
Teller plays Andrew Nieman, an ambitious and gifted young drummer at an elite New York music school whose unwavering passion has turned him into an asocial loner whose only break from drumming is going to the movies with his failed-writer dad (Paul Reiser). Not even pretty cinema counter girl turned potential girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is enough to sway him from his perceived destiny. He wants to be the best and will do anything to accomplish his goal.
Andrew takes a big step towards achieving that dream when he is picked to be part of the school’s top jazz ensemble run by highly regarded teacher and maestro Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). But Fletcher is more dictator than instructor. Clad all in black and with a vulture’s skull and drill sergeant’s bark, he is a monstrous, nightmarish figure content with nothing less than absolute perfection. Rare words of encouragement are quick to turn to very real and very violent anger as he berates, mocks and physically abuses students as part of his twisted vision of pushing them beyond what they think they’re capable of – sometimes straight to breaking point. And the latest target in his crosshairs is Andrew. But the young musical prodigy doesn’t wilt under that never-ending barrage of punishment but instead pushes himself even further into his craft to prove his worth to Fletcher. This in-turn just causes an escalation in response – much to the detriment of all around them.
This may just be a battle of quarter notes and drum strokes, but bodies are left very much broken as Andrew and Fletcher’s twisted and intense master/student relationship turns the normally jazzy halls of a music school into a bloodied battleground. And the two leads are positively sizzling in their performances. Teller brings a raw and honest streak of obsession to the role. He’s wholly believable as this young kid with an unparalleled drive. What’s more, he adds to that believability by playing the film’s many hectic drum sets himself. Although he drummed from a young age, Teller still had to prepare for the demanding role by practicing 4 hours a day, 3 times a week. The effort paid off though, as he puts in a showstopping performance with the sticks, even if some of the film’s more endurance sapping sessions actually required him to play them in stages before being edited together. Film trickery and actual drumming aside though, it is still a mighty showing, simmering with passion.
J.K. Simmons doesn’t ever simmer though. The veteran actor puts in a snarling, beastly performance as Fletcher that is fully deserving of its Oscar nomination. Tyrannical in his presence, Simmons summons up instant, overpowering dread with every wave of his hand or sneer of his lip. He dominates every scene he is in, stalking his co-stars more than acting beside them as he leads these young musicians through the next bit of musical torture. He’s Buddy Rich with a sore tooth, he’s a growling gargoyle, an inhuman fiend of fiery destruction and you simply cannot take your eyes off him.
And much like how Fletcher strives for perfection to the microsecond, so too writer-director Chazelle commands this movie masterfully. He nails every dramatic beat, which each hit building to the next until you’re racked with tension. As the blood and sweat fly, his camera is there to capture every dizzying drop, every electrifying moment, as it expertly swings back and forth in this musical melee. His deceptively simple script rips along, not just keeping you on your toes but keeping you guessing as it hits unexpected notes and rhythm changes. One moment tortuous, the next exhilarating. He pushes these characters to hellish lows and builds them up to exalting highs as he examines what it is that makes greatness great and what we’re willing to endure to achieve that greatness.
With Chazelle’s pitch-perfect performance behind the camera, and coupled with Teller’s soulful, nuanced turn and Simmons’ volcanic, career best showing, Whiplash is the type of film that leaves you as haggard and beat up as an old drum with its non-stop fever-pitch of emotions. It is both a raucously uplifting celebration and vicious deconstruction of musical artistry. It is heartbreaking and scary. It is passion made real/reel. And it is an experience that is definitely not to be missed.
Last Updated: February 9, 2015