Movies like Whiplash should be used for all serious film students as study material, particularly when it comes to classes on acting, and also directing a film so well that, even though it may be grounded in reality, it still manages to be more nail-biting and intense than any recent horror film or gorey crime drama. The fact that it’s supposedly based on a true story (which, again, I find more believable a statement here than when it appears on the poster of, say, a horror stinker like Annabelle) makes it all the better!
Writer-director Damien Chazelle based the film on his time as a student at Princeton High School where he was in a studio band. Depending on how accurate a representation of his life the movie is, one can certainly see why he would quit and pursue a career in film (and what a career he’ll have).
A young drummer named Andrew, played by Miles Teller (of non-spectacular Project X and Divergent fame), longs to be the very best at what he does. Longing for fame and success in the world of music, he practices his beats down in the music hall of Shaffer Conservatory music school in New York, when suddenly one day he is approached by a conductor named Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, who wants Andrew in a band he’s been forming. Andrew agrees, but is quick to find out that Fletcher is a severely abusive teacher, who doesn’t hesitate for a second to yell at his students, berate them in front of the rest of the class and sometimes beat some sense into them if they’re so much as a millisecond off his tempo when they play. He is a despicable man, at least at first, but J.K. Simmons’ performance is so devastatingly pitch-perfect throughout that he sells the entire film and even makes certain parts darkly funny.
Even as the universe seemingly fights against Andrew’s dreams, he stops at nothing to convince Fletcher to keep him on the band, even when he plays so aggressively and fast that his hands start bleeding or when he tells his recently acquired girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that their love for one another, no matter how understanding she’d be, would get in the way of his dreams, at which point he ditches her. It’s cruel, yes, but at this point the film has shown enough suffering on Andrew’s part to make his actions, at the very least, understandable and realistic.
The realism in Whiplash makes it immensely gripping to watch and its escalating tension all that more genuine. The scenes between Andrew and his worried but supportive father (Paul Reiser) feel authentic and are convincingly heartfelt, and a scene worth of extra note is when Andrew asks Nicole out for the first time. The awkward shyness between both of them works insanely well and made me feel like I was watching real people. But what really solidifies this movie’s greatness is, of course, the man who plays Fletcher. And honestly, from all the 2014 movies I’ve seen/had time to watch retroactively so far, this is hands down the greatest performance of that entire year!
J.K. Simmons manages to create one of the most terrifying characters I’ve seen on film and the fact that he simultaneously creates what feels like a real person is what fuels the terror. Having seen Whiplash, but still having a few “Best Supporting Actor” nominees left to catch up on, I can still assure you that Simmons is the one I’m rooting for to take home the Oscar this year. Simmons is so good that I almost feel kinda sorry for Miles Teller. Clearly Teller plays the main character, and great though he is, Simmons steals the show on such a level that it’s almost easy to forget Teller is even in the film. There is no scene in this film where Simmons hams it up too much or underplays it; every single second of his performance is pure perfection and many will most certainly be unpleasantly reminded of men like that whom they’ve met in their own lives, be it old bosses, old teachers or anything else. He plays a person we’ve all encountered at some less than amusing point in life and if Simmons doesn’t get the Oscar for nailing something like that, an uproar would be an apt reaction.
Of course, we should also be fair and realize that Miles Teller too does a great job and that the movie wouldn’t work as well as it does without his brilliantly done portrayal of Andrew. The film utilizes no dream sequences or similar storytelling gimmicks to emphasize the psychological and emotional torture that Fletcher puts Andrew through; it all comes perfectly clear solely through the interaction between these two characters and the job done by the actors.
On that note, I’m curious to know how many of Fletcher’s jabs at his students were ad-libbed by Simmons himself. We all know how he saved the Spider-Man movies with his fast wit so he might have used it here too which, again, allows for some of his devilishly cruel comments to come off as actually pretty funny. Like YouTube critic Jeremy Jahns pointed out, you’ll laugh but then feel like a bad person for it.
I strongly urge you to see this movie, especially if you’re a musical person and can get into all the catchy tunes played by the characters in this movie, probably even more so than I did and I already love the music in Whiplash a lot. I also love the direction, the writing, the possible ad-libbing, the character dynamics, the way its tension builds as its characters evolve, and, as I’ve already stressed enough, those damn fine performances. Whiplash is a great film and I will be cheering for it on February 22nd!
Also watch out for a cameo from Chris Mulkey of Twin Peaks fame when you see this movie. I wonder if he’ll be in season 3 next year?