Musicians are the people who bring music to life in any way possible, calling it like art. After the subject was presented in Whiplash, this was probably either a calling or a warning sign for those wanting to take up drumming. But it’s air-drumming for a while for me. Writer-director Damien Chazelle brought a euphoric uprising between student and teacher in a realistic and almost scary drama. We will remember 2014 as one of the best years for films from all different genres, and how could you not consider this one of them?
What’s the Story: Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young jazz drummer, in pursuit of rising to the top at the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory of Music. Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), an instructor known for his terrifying teaching methods, discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into the top jazz ensemble, forever changing the young man’s life. But Andrew’s passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher pushes him to the brink of his ability and his sanity.
After having its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and took home the Audience and U.S. Grand Jury prizes, the hype was getting real for this drama, especially when the first trailer, and I thought it looked incredible. It took a while to finally get it to Indianapolis since it was in very limited release in New York and Los Angeles; everywhere else always get the goods last. The perfect chance of seeing it was during Christmas break during my senior year in high school. I had to see this because there was no way I was gonna wait till I checked it out from the library. By the way, if you’re ever in Indy and looking for a theater that shows independent films, Keystone Art Cinema is where to go. This was the first time I’ve seen something at an art-house theater, but out of the three movies I saw before going back to school (this, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Into the Woods), I couldn’t stop thinking about nearly every moment captured for two hours.
Everything about Whiplash felt extraordinarily special for an indie darling, in which everyone in the world should see that. This felt like a character study of student and teacher battling each other surroundings in the act of jazz. Nearly every scene feels essential to what’s happening next, and it just keeps you glued to the screen from the very first frame until the last shot. Damien Chazelle was a name nobody has heard of, except for writing the suspense thriller Grand Piano and only directed one full-length feature film before, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, but this was the one that was going to put him on the Hollywood map the best way possible. This entire film was based on his short film, which premiered at Sundance the year before. The short itself, which has Simmons in the same role and Johnny Simmons as Neiman, and it’s basically the entire sequences of his first day in Studio Band.
His direction kept my eyes glued to the screen in all of its amazement. Almost like having the same investment with a beautiful orchestra, and he does a terrific job at not wasting any amount of time. The story is something to connect with about a person who has a desire he wants to have and has to overcome many obstacles to get there and wants his passion to be a reality. The obsession one person takes to achieve a certain goal of perfection will not be an easy road to travel along, but can all that dedication be enough to put you in slow decent into madness? In times of rigorous practice, blood, and sweat to get everything right, the possibilities might be there.
Though we’ve seen it times before, it lands on becoming very unpredictable when the viewers feel unsure of how its tension will be used. The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher becomes more complicated when the latter pushes him to prove he’s the best at this talented skill. If I were to get people’s attention in describing this with three films that come to mind, it would put together The Karate Kid, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Swan all in one. The direction is vivacious, feeling real while also bringing a lot of tension between the rivalry of the two principal characters. By the way, this and Black Swan would make the perfect double feature.
Watching this will give Miles Teller more respect than before. We were starting to think he was going to be typecast as the party dude just from his last few appearances. Never has Miles Teller give a more committed performance in his career by far since his breakout role in 2013’s The Spectacular Now just a year before, proving he can be a believable actor. You can understand where his character Andrew is coming from since we want him to become the next big jazz drummer, doing whatever it takes to get to the top of the game. And as a drummer, he does a fantastic job playing the drums, which I believe is him actually playing them in real-life, he wants to be the very best he can do when struggling while trying to impress his insulting teacher, Terence Fletcher, portrayed J. K. Simmons.
Simmons has always been one of the best character actors, from Vernon Schillinger on Oz or J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy. Basically, this is what would’ve happened if his character Vern got out of prison and became a music teacher. My vote for the favorite of the best villain of the year goes to Terrence Fletcher, as he is the biggest scum teacher ever put to film, who Chazelle based the character on one of his own teachers. At first glance, you would think he would be this smart person with extensive knowledge of music, but he turns into a captivating teacher that means business in the most brutal way. He will stop at nothing to push his students to greatness, but at what cost. Simmons’ performance was just brutal when most of the insults that Chazelle’s screenplay gives to Simmons are some of the best and meanest things ever heard in a R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket like way with the insults and screaming. He can verbally abusive anyone so hard, he can say anything so politically incorrect, and you wouldn’t know if you believe it to be offended. Around the 30 minute mark, that was when I knew it wouldn’t be a competition to see who’ll win Best Supporting Actor.
From a technical perspective, there are no complaints towards the incredible editing from Tom Cross as it was pristine to when the music plays, it’s cut to the actual instruments and feels more interesting without even stopping, or it cuts to the sync of the music that’s playing. And nobody gives Sharone Meir’s cinematography enough credit for having this color palette that makes a powerful impression of its mood in every other scene. Honestly, if there were any problems I might’ve had with it, the relationship between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), it’s good, but I felt like it didn’t need to be in here since we all expect it to go one way with everything on his mind.
But the finale alone just had me at the edge of my seat when I saw it for the first time, with so much adrenaline behind it and how it made my jaw drop for the entire length of when it was occurring. Even after it’s over, I was still thinking about it, and how it almost makes me want to witness a set of drums, playing the freaking crap out of them like I was Neil Peart or John Bonham, even though I’m pretty certain I have to rhythm. Seriously, this was one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a long time. Did I want to see this twice in the theater? 100%, if it was playing closer to where I live.
Just like with Birdman in the same year, this is why independent movies need more attention because this is one to remember in the next ten years, and I know it will be. Years later, it’s probably safe to say this climbed higher to become my favorite movie of 2014, beating out Birdman, and I still love it. Originally my second favorite, yet it’s always fresh in my mind. Everyone I know has always spoken overwhelmingly positive towards this, and it’s hard not to. Despite only earning $13.1 million against a budget of $3.3 million, it was still a very popular film around awards season, as it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three: Best Supporting Actor for Simmons, Film Editing, and Sound Mixing. Chazelle didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which was one of many frustrating snubs from that ceremony. But that doesn’t matter since he’ll win three years later with his next cinematic achievement, La La Land.
Whiplash is an experience that can easily be described as exhilarating, intense, and full-on brilliant from beginning to end. From the fantastic directing and writing from Damien Chazelle, the editing, and stellar performances from Teller and Simmons, it’s a drama that carries the perfect tempo without missing a single beat. Please, if you have yet to see this, then I have no clue what you’re doing with your life right now to put off greatness like this? Aspiring musicians might want to take precautions before watching this, but you’ll get so much out of a magnificent piece of cinema.