“Whiplash”: A Pulse-Quickening Musical Battle of Wills

“Whiplash”: A Pulse-Quickening Musical Battle of Wills November 25, 2014

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) providing motivation for Andrew Weiman (Miles Teller)
Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) providing motivation for Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller)

Writing about Whiplash, it’s hard to resist a trip to the film critic’s cabinet of clichéd accolades. For instance: “J.K. Simmons delivers a career-defining performance!” Or, “Storytelling so compelling and vibrant – you won’t be able to look away from the screen!” And maybe, “Astonishingly intense – take a beta blocker before you see it!”

The first and second commendations are definitely true. The third one is admittedly an exaggeration, but only mildly so, judging by the bated breath of the spectators around me, as well as the collective exhalation of release at Whiplash’s final fade to black.

It all starts so innocently. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a 19 year old student at NYC’s elite Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Working on his jazz drumming skills in a practice room, he’s startled to discover that he’s being appraised by the feared and revered instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Neiman obviously makes a good impression, because not much later, he’s picked to be an alternate in Fletcher’s crème de la crème Studio Band.

Please don’t let the synopsis so far deceive you. Fletcher is no touchy-feely Mr. Keating (Dead Poets’ Society) or Mr. Holland (of his eponymous Opus). No, Fletcher’s preferred motivational methods are bullying, humiliation, yelling, and even physical abuse. He also doesn’t hesitate to foster nasty competition among Neiman and two other drummers for the coveted core role in his band.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) fighting to keep his cool
Andrew Neiman fighting to keep his cool

J.K. Simmons displays a remarkable facility in traversing his character’s full, complex emotional range.  Before one competition, we see him charm the young daughter of a colleague. He sheds tears over the death of a former pupil. But beware of his pretended tenderness toward his current students. When he empathically speaks privately with Neiman before his first Studio Band rehearsal, we quickly learn it was only to mine for intimate data that he can later use to good effect in his mind-raping.

Many of his insults are unprintable, but to take a couple of tamer examples, one student is taunted as “Mister Gay Pride of the North Side.” Another slightly obese musician who can’t make eye contact with Fletcher during a verbal assault is loudly ordered to look up, because “there’s no f***ing Mars Bar down there!”

Miles Teller is as skillful and varied in his portrayal of Neiman. His awkwardness and timidity with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and his affection for his father (played with gentle empathy by Paul Reiser) are completely convincing. Just as believable are his fierce drumming skills and his willingness to push himself beyond the breaking point (another cliché, but still true), in the developing battle of wills and sick rapport between him and Fletcher.

Neiman on a date with Nicole
Neiman on a date with Nicole (Melissa Benoist)

In the hands of writer/director Damien Chazelle, this struggle is ultimately taken to implausible extremes. Honestly, though, I hardly cared this was the case, because of Whiplash’s other strengths.

For one thing, the dialogue is so cutting and clever. There are some genuine laughs to be found here. Admittedly, though, most of them are of the uncomfortable sort, whether due to Fletcher’s wildly inappropriate barbs or Neiman’s audacious hubris, deliriously pressing him to become the greatest jazz drummer since Buddy Rich.

Additionally, Chazelle melds image and sound with a dexterity that would make an all-time master director such as Akira Kurosawa beam with pride. Rapid-fire editing – using close-ups of emptying spit valves, bloodied bandages, and sweat-beaded cymbals – keeps the tension maximally amped. So does the judicious choice of music. Solo upright bass played pizzicato-style at a moderate tempo puts us on edge when Neiman is selected for Fletcher’s band. Frenetic solo drumming does the job equally well in other scenes.

And what a score! From online conversations with fellow critics, I know I’m not the first to notice the nifty coincidence of two fine drum-heavy jazz soundtracks emerging almost simultaneously. Antonio Sanchez’s music for Birdman is far more dissonant. Whiplash’s score, a mix of jazz standards with terrific original music by Justin Hurwitz, is more melodic and thus preferable for a semi-traditionalist like me.

No grand moral or message lurks in Whiplash. To be sure, there are some nods towards the conflict between obsessional pursuit of vocational excellence versus friendship and family values. When juxtaposed against the teacher/student dynamic, this emerges nicely in Neiman’s conversations with his girlfriend Nicole, as well as time spent with his kindly dad.

But Whiplash works far more as a tale of suspense, with a hefty dollop of psychological warfare on the side. If that’s what you’re seeking, I’d urge you to plunk down your money for this, rather than the latest Hobbit or Hunger Games installment. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this recommendation, once your blood pressure returns to normal.

4 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide: Whiplash is justifiably rated R, in light of its strong language and sexual references. Have I also mentioned its intensity? I’d therefore consider steering younger teens towards other fare.)

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