And I thought my high school band teacher was tough!
There are natural musicians on this planet—people who pick up a guitar, drumsticks or a saxophone, and play with an enviable ease. Then there are other musical geniuses, extraordinary musicians in training who require some sort of extra push to put them over the top.
Whiplash, the second feature from director Damien Chazelle, is about a young man who needs that extra push—a push that, to an extent, equates to a form of masochism.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring drummer at a musical conservatory in Manhattan. He practices late at night when nobody is around, which catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most-elite jazz-music teacher. He immediately begins to torture the music out of Andrew. It’s apparent that Fletcher sees something in Andrew early on, even though he’s terrorizing him. Andrew winds up trying out for Fletcher’s band—tryouts which involve verbal emasculation and chairs being thrown at his head.
The torture doesn’t stop during Andrew’s private practice time. We see him beating on his drums until blisters form, and blood spouts from his hands. In his drive to be the best, he puts himself through a hell almost worse than the punishing regimen inflicted upon him by Fletcher. Almost.
Those who watched HBO’s Oz know that Simmons is capable of playing the most heinous of human beasts. Fletcher is an amazing creation, an above-the-law terror who believes great musicians come from great suffering. As horrible as he is, he truly thinks he is doing his students a great service by withholding the reward of teacher approval. There will be no gold stars from him.
Doing much of his own drumming, Teller opens himself up in an astonishing way, both physically and emotionally. Whether he’s taking legitimate cracks to the face from Simmons, or screaming at his sweat-drenched self in a tiny practice chamber, Teller leaves it all on the drum kit, including his own blood.
Together, Simmons and Teller are the stuff of movie legends. Fletcher tears into Andrew like a crow ripping the flesh off of roadside carrion, and Andrew often convinces us that he is down for the count. He rises again and again.
Watching musicians kill each other in Whiplash makes you wonder if Mozart eviscerated himself while learning his piano parts, or whether Lennon and McCartney threw mic stands at one another when putting together “The White Album.” Great artistry can command unholy discipline, and unleash ungodly tempers. Fletcher makes the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket look like Pope Francis.
Paul Reiser gets his best role in years as Andrew’s loving father, a man who wishes he could protect his son from life’s monsters, yet knows that he can’t.
I thought Edward Norton had the Best Supporting Actor Oscar wrapped up for his Birdman performance until I witnessed Simmons in this film. This is going to be an awards-season battle for the ages. As for Teller, he deserves a Best Actor nomination to go with his destroyed hands. He pulls off a physical and emotional demolition on par with that of De Niro in Raging Bull.
Whiplash was filmed at breakneck speed, and Chazelle is a director of amazing precision. This is an all-time-great movie about music, as well as a great character war. It’s not to be missed.
Whiplash is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).