A caustic distillation of fearless ambition and the sacrifices made seeking perfection, Whiplash is a powerhouse drama featuring a sensational performance from J.K. Simmons.
The fascinating thing about Whiplash is not simply the ferocity of J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance. Rather, it is the astonishing way in which its intensity is matched by Miles Teller’s relentless determination and undoubted skill on the drums. It’s a powerful combination of artistic genius and human spirit. The result is a compelling distillation of the best and the worst sides of our endeavours; the blood, sweat and tears of single-minded, fearless ambition.
Talented writer-director Damien Chazelle takes his real life experience as part of a competitive jazz band at Princeton High School to formulate a compelling drama; at its heart a cinematic love letter to music composition and artistry but one with fear coursing through its veins. Framed by its two principle characters – Teller’s aspirational college drummer Andrew Neiman and Simmons’ bullying conductor Terence Fletcher – Whiplash is more than just pupil versus teacher as it carefully depicts the sacrifices and cost inherent in elevating oneself above the “norm”.
The film has hints of the American sports drama but without the sentimentality as we see Neiman introduced to the “big league” jazz band before having to fight for his place, learning to better himself in spite of Fletcher’s sadism, and then attempting to lead the group on the biggest stage of all. That Chazelle makes both the practice sessions and main performances enthralling is testament to the musicianship on show and the scalding tension between Neiman and Simmons. Despite the film possessing no Hollywood explosions, you’re still left wondering if there’s one around the corner.
We can thank Simmons for that. An actor resigned to support roles, he’s yet again billed as such in Whiplash but if anything he’s the main event. It isn’t that his character has a proclivity towards rage, it’s more the fact he has complete control over it. It’s easy for someone to get mad in the face of something that irks them, the emotion forcing them to lose control, but much harder to use that anger with such judicious reasoning. Simmons is a monster who gets results.
The perfect foil for this “monster” is a protagonist who will not quit. Teller’s performance is worthy if only because he convinces in front of the drum kit. With music perfection the core of Fletcher’s being, it is fitting that Chazelle, Teller and co. provide nothing less, the young actor suggesting he’s every bit as qualified to be in a jazz ensemble as the character he plays.
From its pared down opening – the off-screen sound of drums being played, the subsequent low light illuminating the music room and the chance meeting between Fletcher and Neiman – to the explosive finale, Whiplash is a fiery-hearted, finely-tuned, exquisitely original drama that will move and invigorate in equal measure.