Whether it’s concerning the state of jazz or the film industry, there has been a certain lack of vitality within both camps. They just don’t make ’em like they use to. But in this particular case, Whiplash radiates such remarkable, raw energy that it sticks with you well after the last cymbal crash. A movie so intoxicating that you’ll forget you’re watching actors and not the real thing.
As a freshman attending the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory of Music – a fictitious university located in New York City – Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) has aspirations of becoming one of the best jazz percussionists in the world. Handpicked to join one of the top tier studio bands in the country, Neyman has reached the pinnacle of music academia. However, he has but one hurdle to overcome if he is to truly make it: the ungruding approval of studio band conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Looking to prove he has earned his rightful place in Fletcher’s band, Neyman pushes himself to do whatever it takes to fulfill his dreams.
Sundance has a hard-on for Miles Teller, but for good reason. Last year it was for The Spectacular Now – receiving the Special Jury Award for Acting with Shailene Woodley – and this year for Whiplash – earning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. There’s no denying it, this young man has natural charisma and sincerity, and it shows ten fold here. Pouring his heart out to the beat of his own drum, Teller performs all of his own percussion work seen within the film; an impressive feat in and of itself. Teller’s believable performance as the unrelenting Neyman can be felt with every drop of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s completely visceral how much of himself he puts into this role.
On the other side of the coin is J.K. Simmons, who is so menacing that he is as sharp as the music he conducts on screen – Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash”. There is a high level of ferocity Simmons brings to Fletcher that creates a crescendo of immense tension leading up to a thrilling boiling point between the two stars. It’s mesmerizing when you have an actor who completely commits to their role, making it their own, and effectively embodying the character. That’s what J.K. has done here. It’s a performance that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else suitable for the job.
The plot is fairly simple, but the direction by newcomer writer-director Damien Chazelle – who had conceived Whiplash as a 85-page screenplay, but presented it at Sundance in 2013 as a short film to gain studio interest – is tight and inspiring. What he is able to draw out from Simmons and Teller is utterly electrifying. The way Chazelle is able to capture every emotion is powerful, with not a single scene wasted.
What the only thing this movie lacks is a little more depth of character. Neyman is a huge jazz geek that comes from a competitive family and Fletcher has been at Schaffer for ages, driving his students to find their inner Charlie Parker. Little is revealed about Neyman and Fletcher outside of their love for jazz and I would have appreciated if they were a bit more fleshed out. And the secondary characters were basically non-entities serving as minor conflicts. But I applaud Chazelle’s control to steer the focus away from what could have been a messy subplot of romance that could have taken the focus away from the dynamic between Fletcher and Neyman. Nonetheless, Melissa Benoist has a fantastic earnestness to her that I wouldn’t mind seeing in a more predominant part later in her career.
Finding the perfect balance between performance art and well-acted drama, Whiplash makes for one exhilarating ride that gives Black Swan a run for its money. What Chazelle accomplishes in his storytelling is an ambitious and dazzling sophomore effort, and I look forward to what he will bring next.
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Whiplash was directed by Damien Chazelle, with a run time of 106 minutes. The film hits theaters on October 10, 2014 and is rated R for strong language including some sexual references.