Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (USA, 2014) takes its name from a fiercely difficult jazz composition written by Hank Levy for the Don Ellis Orchestra in 1973, full of precise-yet-aggressive instrumentation and unconventional 7/4 and 14/8 time signatures. It’s one of the first charts assigned to young college-aged drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, by the notoriously rigorous Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the teacher who picks Neyman out of an ensemble for underclassmen and drafts him into his own prestigious ‘Studio’ jazz orchestra. Fletcher thinks ‘Whiplash’ will make or break the promising Neyman. When Neyman nails it, Fletcher ups the ante with a punishingly fast arrangement of the Duke Ellington – Juan Tizol classic ‘Caravan.’ And a ferocious and compelling battle of wills begins, as well as an exhilarating and exhausting experience for we, the audience. Neyman will master whatever Fletcher throws at him, and Fletcher will punish him mercilessly for anything less than mastery. It honestly took a good half-of-an-hour for my blood pressure to return to something like normal after viewing this film. What Chazelle does here he does fiendishly well; it’s astonishing, bravura filmmaking.
Andrew Neyman already knows he’s a damned good drummer when he enrolls at Shaffer. His single father (Paul Reiser, doing some nice work in a low-key character role) is a capable, well-liked English teacher who, at one time, had larger aspirations to be a writer, and he’s unfailingly yet realistically supportive of Andrew. But the mercurial and manipulative Fletcher introduces Andrew to a whole new world of aspiration and sacrifice – there are no ‘realistic’ qualifiers here – almost psycho-surgically (which I hereby declare to be A Real Word) taking Andrew apart and putting him back together again, using Andrew’s family history with John Bradshaw-like incisiveness, and his own high standards and love for the music to both attack and propel Andrew to almost masochistic dedication. But the exceptionalism comes at a cost – his fellow musicians recognize, and keep a distance from, Andrew’s self-punishing leap into prodigy-hood; he’s derisive and dismissive of his family and friends’ smaller victories within their seemingly smaller lives, and he cruelly dismisses the one woman in his life who might keep him earthbound (Melissa Benoist, modestly but nicely growing past her ‘Homeland’ and ‘Glee’ TV work).
Miles Teller is very good here – even at his most self-serving, he’s still someone we’re rooting for, someone we want to see come out the other side of this from – but it must be said that the true owner of the film is J.K. Simmons, leaping into the pantheon of frighteningly-effective psychological tyrants already occupied by the likes of John Houseman’s Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, Robert Duvall’s Great Santini, and R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. The drill instructor parallel is especially apt here, I believe, considering that the film is almost completely bereft of female characters. There are no female teachers, students, family members or musicians within miles of Chazelle’s universe here – except for Benoist’s fleeting-but-revealing Nicole, it’s extraordinarily testosterone-driven, and I’m curious to see how differently women react to the film once it enters general release.
My other caveat is that despite the ferocity, credibility and professional acting chops that the laudable Simmons brings to the role, it’s not going to take most people very long to conclude that Terence Fletcher, despite his astronomically high standards of artistry, is a godawful teacher (of anything, let alone music) who wouldn’t have lasted into a third semester in any educational arts institution. Those of us who have had similar competitive experiences to Andrew’s in bands, choirs, drama productions, or speech and debating will, no doubt, recognize, in Fletcher, aspects of their own, or competing, teachers, and most of them will nonetheless call bullshit. I understand the point of Fletcher’s excesses and indulgences, but it was very smart of Chazelle to conclude his film outside of the school – I think he knew he had pressed his luck.
The real bug that Chazelle wants to put in our ear (and it’s a good one) is about aspiration towards greatness. Does greatness, in any vocation, come from a place of love and encouragement and available resources? Or should it come from conflict, from adversity, from challenge that disrupts all of the other aspects of our lives? Is greatness worth anything to ourselves if we haven’t gone through hell to achieve it? Are you a bad businessman if you don’t follow Jack Welch’s admonitions towards “Leadership! Excellence! Competition! Exceptionalism!”? What if you just want to make a comfortable living doing work you like? Will you be chewed up and spit out by your peers? Is that a just fate? Is greatness required, in music, in anything creative, in our jobs, in our lives? I loved the ending of this film (and I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything here) because we don’t know who ‘won,’ we just know they’re both fighting the battle on the same terms, and it’s up to us to decide whether they’re both redeemed or both doomed.
This film and James Gray’s The Immigrant are absolutely my two favorite films of the year, and I’ll be shocked and surprised if this year’s pre-Oscars holiday offerings change that. This film is a brilliant and enthralling must-see.