Featuring two unforgettable performances and a script that is as close to perfection as you can find in cinema today, Whiplash is a surefire contender for best film of 2014.
There have been many films about music and various fictional individuals’ attempts at greatness, but never have the heartbreaking sacrifices and unnervingly tense moments that come with truly achieving something special been captured the way they are in Whiplash. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is as much an exercise in focused effort as the story it has to share, stripping away every moment of needless exposition and unnecessary side-stories in order to deliver a driving and relentlessly thrilling journey to heights of human ability.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a promising young jazz drummer who hopes to one day join the elite band at his East Coast music conservatory. That group is led by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tough-as-nails instructor whose methods of pushing his students are viewed by many as unorthodox. He screams, throws things, tears people down, swears, and often makes it clear that nobody currently performing for him is so good he cannot cut them at a moment’s notice. He’s probably amongst the most ruthless instructors to ever be brought to the screen, but as the story unfolds Chazelle makes a clear and well-fought argument that such over the top methods are necessary in order to help others reach a point where they do something truly unique.
I was sold on Whiplash from the opening scene, but what took me by surprise was just how far Chazelle was willing to push his characters in order to do something out of the ordinary with a somewhat familiar setup. It’s clear very early on that Whiplash has set out to go beyond the heights of past music films, abandoning many of the familiar tropes that give characters depth in favor of delivering a more goal-oriented story, and while that move may cause some titles to eventually lose steam it’s a decision that allows Whiplash to break miles of new ground in a genre that has been flooded with redundancy in recent years.
Whiplash would likely work with almost anyone filling the lead roles, as the script is tight and Chazelle’s work behind the camera is strong, but the entire production is taken to another level with the presence of Teller and Simmons. Teller has been the breakout star of young Hollywood for the last two years, and here he makes it clear that his talents are going to be a staple of the entertainment industry for years to come. Having started drumming at the age of 15 and learning new techniques specifically for the film, he pours his all into the role, and in doing so accomplishes something great himself. Simmons, on the other hand, has long proven himself to be an intense and, at times, vicious actor. Watching him display his vast talent throughout the various set pieces of Whiplash is akin to taking a lightning-fast class in acting taught by a professor who at this point needs no real introduction. Those familiar with Simmons have known him to be a star for years, and here he finally gets the time in the limelight he has long deserved.
There will be some who talk of Whiplash with the opinion Fletcher pushes too hard, or that perhaps the message of the story is one that risks ruining some people’s desire to ever chase their dreams, but the more I think about it the more I believe Chazelle is speaking the truth with this picture. To achieve real greatness you must make great sacrifices, and that includes everything from physical demands like endless hours of practice, to emotional ties that may distract you from remaining focused on your goals. Most people realize these things must happen in order to go beyond wherever they are in life, but very few fully commit. Most drop whatever they feel is detrimental and reason with themselves as to why other elements of distraction or laziness may remain. I know I’ve done it, and if you think about it you probably have as well at one point or another. We’re only human, after all.
Whiplash fully commits to being something great from its opening scene, and it demands that its audience do the same. If you get behind that idea early enough, you will find yourself spending over 90 minutes on the edge of your seat. If it takes a while, that’s fine too. Everyone’s journey to self-fulfillment is different, and in many ways I think the same will eventually be said about how people view Whiplash. Those who have given their all for something will connect the most, while those on the fence about how much they can commit to whatever they desire to pursue may feel a bit antagonized by the message the film conveys. All I’m going to say is that it has a point to make, and it’s one more people should take to heart.
Originally featured on: Under The Gun Review