Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Running time: 106mins
The lowdown: When Damien Chazelle’s stunning film crashes to a close, you’ll feel the meaning of its title. A student/teacher film about J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical music instructor pushing promising drummer Miles Teller to impossible extremes, this is an anti-inspirational mentor movie and all the more astounding for it. Music classes filmed with the violence and intensity of boxing matches, Whiplash never lets the tempo drop, while Teller and Simmons devour roles that come along maybe once a career. Oscar Night; be afraid, be very afraid.
The full verdict: The opening drum roll has the rhythm of an accelerating heartbeat. The film’s pace maintains this level of anxious/excited tension for 106 shattering minutes.
Whiplash has come from nowhere to rewrite the rule book on how this type of movie should unfold. Gone are the grand emotional and professional epiphanies and the unorthodox though lovable teacher.
J.K. Simmons’ prestigious music school teacher Dr. Fletcher is unorthodox, but his focus is entirely on the creation of perfect musicians. Brutalising students whose instruments literally become weapons of bloodshed his closest cinematic relation is R. Lee Ermey’s ferocious drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (with the vampiric qualities of Nosferatu’s Max Schreck).
Fletcher too barks out off-colour, offensive, demeaning insults every time training, sorry, rehearsal is halted by a mistake. And any sign of emotion is regarded as the ultimate weakness.
Even the name Dr. Fletcher sounds like a serial killer, and there is more than a touch of the erudite sadist in his capricious toying with his students.
Fletcher’s excesses (including but not limited to physical assault and attempted decapitation with a foldaway chair) could tip the film into preposterous melodrama. But, Chazelle is careful to humanise him just when pantomime villainy threatens to rear up. Here is where Simmons’ pitch perfect performance truly impresses, knowing when to soften just a little to demonstrate Fletcher’s love for what he is teaching.
The actor could easily run away with the movie, but Miles Teller is also electrifying as Andrew, the ambitious kid willing to push himself beyond endurance to achieve greatness.
And Whiplash is not concerned with likeability. Coarsened and hardened by Fletcher’s tirades, Andrew becomes as driven and misanthropic as his (tor)mentor.
Resisting easy melodrama for the most part, Chazelle (incredibly basing the film on his own experiences with a demanding music teacher) even manages to slip romance in with Benoist’s cinema attendant and make it not seem like easy shorthand for Andrew’s increasingly cold ambition.
Paul Reiser’s small but pivotal role as Andrew’s decent dad scores two bottom-lip quivering moments that would have Fletcher launching the entire drum kit at us.
But, this is Simmons and Teller’s show. Their scenes in the classroom or at various competitions bubble with the tension of a Hitchcock thriller and the abrupt violence of a Scorsese gangster movie.
Chazelle shoots with hard, precise angles that isolate Andrew from his classmates or anyone other than Fletcher, unflinchingly depicting the physical toll a seemingly pleasurable pursuit is having. The blood and sweat are there on the drum skins and the exhilaration burns off the screen.
Like all five star movies, this is prime post-movie pub debate fodder. Is Fletcher right to push burgeoning talent to breaking point? Is legendary status worth the misery of the moment? In today’s talentless fame culture is this harshness the way to redress the balance?
There may not be one answer, but Whiplash provides quite the soundtrack as you’re arguing it.