The first time I saw Whiplash was back in January at Sundance. For me, it was the highlight of the festival, and it hasn’t stopped haunting me since. Before seeing it a second time recently, I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to that first impression. That my almost giddy reaction to its explosive performances, raw-nerve energy, and infectious bebop swing was simply a side effect of the high-altitude hothouse of Park City. The truth is, I loved it even more. It’s the most electric movie I’ve seen so far this year.
Miles Teller, the soulful 27-year-old actor who gave notice in last year’s The Spectacular Now, stars as Andrew Neiman — a gifted jazz drummer attending New York’s hypercompetitive Shaffer Conservatory of Music (a fictional school clearly modeled after Juilliard). Andrew is a cocky prodigy who’s driven not only to be great but to be one of the Greats, like his rat-a-tat dervish hero Buddy Rich. As the film opens, with the screen still black, we hear the slow build of a snare drum. It’s Andrew practicing. The tempo builds faster and faster until it reaches a fever pitch, which is exactly what writer-director Damien Chazelle’s film is about to do too. Because standing in the doorway is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the hard-ass maestro who looms over the school like R. Lee Ermey’s barking drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. Ropy and muscular, dressed all in black, and capped by a chrome dome with veins squiggling up his temples like the seams on a baseball, Fletcher closes his eyes and listens — really listens. He’s trying to divine whether Andrew has the chops to join his elite student band…or if he just wants to chew the kid up and spit him out. Maybe both.
Adapted from a short film that Chazelle brought to Sundance in 2013, Whiplash is a new kind of movie about an age-old theme: the psychological price of pursuing perfection and the almost sadomasochistic relationship between mentor and pupil. In his classroom, Fletcher, whose bark is every bit as bad as his bite, terrorizes his students, hurling either arias of profanity or metal chairs at their heads, depending on his mood. He’s a monster, but he’s also more than that. Deep down he seems to believe that his tough-love approach can pull something beautiful out of misunderstood students like Andrew. Simmons, an actor better known for playing hangdog good guys such as the dad in Juno, has rarely been allowed to sink his teeth into a character like this. He’s brutal and manipulative, and you can’t take your eyes off him. And Teller, with his baby face and air of easily wounded vulnerability, makes Andrew someone you pull for despite his jerky arrogance toward his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and others.
As Fletcher puts Andrew through the wringer, pushing him to practice until his callused fingers bleed, you feel in your gut the simultaneous thrill and terror of the drive to be exceptional, whatever the cost. You don’t have to be a jazz fan for Whiplash to zap you with its thrumming live-wire beat (although it doesn’t hurt). If you can appreciate the sight of two totally dialed-in performers simmering until they boil over, that’s enough. And P.S., that’s pretty much the definition of jazz. A