Sundance Film Review: ‘Whiplash’

Whiplash Sundance

J.K. Simmons lands the role of his career as a conservatory conductor who drums the fear of failure into his students

Miles Teller drums his heart out — and then some — in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s stellar career-starter, “Whiplash,” which demolishes the cliches of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena. Chazelle proves an exceptional builder of scenes, crafting loaded, need-to-succeed moments that grab our attention and hold it tight, thanks largely to co-star J.K. Simmons as the school’s most intimidating instructor — a talent evidenced a year earlier by the three-scene teaser that took Sundance’s top shorts prize.

The short was partly the brainchild of producers Jason Reitman and Jason Blum, whose hopes that “Whiplash” might break out beyond the niche confines of staid young-musician movies were boosted significantly by its high-energy opening-night berth at Sundance. Substitute its jazz-band specialty for hip-hop, and the commercial prospects would skyrocket — though it’s plenty accessible to all as executed.

“Whiplash” is not about drumming, after all, but rather just how far someone will go to be the best. Teller’s 19-year-old Andrew descends from a long line of mediocrity (embodied by his far-from-competitive father, played by Paul Reiser), but he is determined to add his name to the short list of widely known jazz greats. Andrew is certainly dedicated enough, practicing until his fingers bleed on more than one occasion. Despite his junior status as a first-year student, Andrew manages to catch the ear of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who offers him a seat in his band.

From the opening scene, Chazelle (who made his feature debut with 2009’s low-budget jazz musical “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”) makes it known that Fletcher has the power to launch — or cut short — young careers, introducing Simmons’ character smoldering sans cigarette in shadows straight out of film noir. Owing more to R. Lee Ermey’s tough-love drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” than he does the genre’s typical positive-reinforcement pap, Fletcher is even more intimidating in front of the studio band, where he lets fly torrents of emasculating and openly homophobic invective directed against any and all who disappoint. The character is capricious and cruel, making him a volatile force in Andrew’s life, even in scenes where the conductor isn’t physically present.

One naturally assumes that talented musicians play for the sheer pleasure of their art, but “Whiplash” suggests that fear is far and away their best motivator. For those seeking perfection, one tiny slip threatens to jeopardize the ensemble as a whole. As a result, Fletcher’s strategy is to humiliate the stragglers in front of the entire group — the sort of abuse more commonly associated with locker rooms and war movies, whose high stakes Chazelle brings to bear on this more civilized arena.

“There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job,’” Fletcher confides at one point, explaining how encouragement breeds complacency. By contrast, fear of verbal abuse — or the occasional flying chair — keeps the musicians on their toes, and Simmons has no trouble performing the vitriolic putdowns that the role requires, channeling some of his old “Oz” persona. By contrast, the unsung supporting cast does wonders with little dialogue, letting subtle body language convey the intensely competitive dynamic, where “core” players perform while alternates turn their pages.

For most of the ensemble, music is everything. Instead of incorporating subplots for the sake of it, Chazelle zeroes in on Andrew’s attraction to Nicole (“Glee” newcomer Melissa Benoist), the concession-counter gal from his local movie theater. Andrew is painfully shy at first, but success at school gives him just enough confidence to initiate a conversation, which leads to a pair of follow-up scenes biting enough to have been written by Aaron Sorkin, as Andrew calculates that dating would merely get in the way of his dream.

Apart from the occasional high-concept camera move, Chazelle generally steers clear of imposing a heavy style on his story. Simmons’ outbursts certainly command the lion’s share of the attention, though the helmer borrows Bob Fosse-style jump cuts to inject real excitement into a world that many associate with PBS fodder. “Whiplash” has a built-in advantage in that it’s set in the world of jazz competitions, where Fletcher likes to keep the tempo set as high as 300 beats per minute. That energy comes through in Teller’s hyper-physical performance — yet another radical departure for an actor who’s been out-transforming nearly everyone in his generation. Here, he starts too shy to exchange more than a few words with Nicole and reaches a point where he’s effectively pouring out his subconscious onstage.

Meanwhile, as much fun as Fletcher is to watch, his behavior is nothing shy of monstrous, and one can sense the clash brewing between the conductor and his new favorite student far in advance. Surface intrigues aside, however, the film is ultimately about a rivalry not between Andrew and his instructor, but between the promising teenage drummer and himself. Adversity helped create Charlie Parker, and Chazelle’s highly entertaining experiment asks whether such rejection breeds greatness, and if so, at what cost?

Sundance Film Review: 'Whiplash'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 16, 2014. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

A Bold Films presentation of a Blumhouse/Right of Way production. Produced by Helen Estabrook, Jason Blum, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster. Executive producers, Jason Reitman, Couper Samuelson, Gary Michael Walters. Co-producers, Garrick Dion, Stephanie Wilcox, Sarah Potts.

Crew

Directed, written by Damien Chazelle. Camera (color, widescreen), Sharone Meir; editor, Tom Cross; music, Justin Hurwitz; music supervisor, Andy Ross; production designer, Melanie Paizis-Jones; art director, Hunter Brown; set decorator, Karuna Karmarkar; costume designer, Lisa Norcia; sound, Thomas Curley; supervising sound editors, Ben Wilkins, Craig Mann; re-recording mixers, Mann, Wilkins; visual effects supervisor, Jamison Goei; visual effects, Ingenuity Engine; special effects coordinator, Zachary Knight; stunt coordinator, Mark Riccardi; line producer, Mark D. Katchur; associate producer, Phillip Dawe; assistant director, Nicolas D. Harvard; second unit director, Harvard; casting, Terri Taylor.

With

Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang.

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  1. been there done that says:

    As the reviewer says, this movie isn’t about drumming, musicianship, or music. It’s about psychopathy.
    There are some tough customers in the music world but this portrayal is way over the top. Breaking instruments, sabotaging your own performance, plus some of the dialogue, insults the more’s of ensemble playing and the music itself. Not that it doesn’t happen but people like that generally don’t last long or have to content themselves with a solo career or playing with amateurs who don’t know any better.
    One big omission from the story is that in music schools, young musician’s primary relationship is with their private teacher/mentor and they would not stand for this. It is typical for psychopath’s to seek out positions of power from which to find victims for their abuse, I can guarantee that the instrumental teachers in an institution like that would take someone like Fletcher out behind the shed and beat the crap out of him for mistreating their students. End of story.
    Likewise if Fletcher tried this crap with mature musicians he wouldn’t last long. If Philly Joe Jones influenced Bird with a flying cymbal, it doesn’t mean that if you throw a cymbal at every musician you come across you might create another Bird, that is just crazy. Also, as any self respecting pro would have informed him, that they might not be Bird, but Fletcher is no Joe Jones either and that matters, a lot.
    The epiphany at the end is laughable, and the inference that that Fletcher’s abuse produced the transformation only serves the rhetoric of abuse that it is justified to attain some higher plane. Abusers always claim that.
    What a disappointing film.

  2. jacquie says:

    One of the worst movies I have ever seen. I kept hoping that the abuse would stop …..and it finally did in the closing scene when the conductor/abuser gave a small smile to the drummer. I disagree with the man who says it makes you think…the only thing that I thought was “how soon will this abuse end?””

  3. beanie says:

    I wish the film showed the reality of the hours/day of practice required to be a great musician. It’s like preparing for the Olympics for the rest of your working life. In real life it’s interesting to see a musician evolve over time instead of just a few months, as in Whiplash. It’s also interesting in real life to witness abusive jerks come to the realization that their behavior has sabotaged their dreams. I would have loved to see the characters evolve in this movie. Abuse is not interesting to watch.

    • livingny says:

      Really? You didn’t see practice? They showed the kid as a little boy playing, he’d been playing since he could hold sticks. They show him in the practice rooms playing and practicing…. what do you need? Hours and hours of practice in real time? LOL Then it becomes a reality show and not a movie… oh boy reality tv has a lot to answer for…

      It wasn’t ALL about the abuse and it was a clip in time and it didn’t comment on the abuse being bad/good the movie left it open for the audience to interpret as each person viewing would have their own view of what they saw.. It was also meant to get people to open a discussion about it. That’s what good entertainment is! Not mindless reality tv but stuff that makes you think.

  4. name me any of the really greats of jazz that came out of the music schools?

    • listen says:

      Thelonius Monk
      Miles Davis
      Chick Corea
      Eddie Gomez
      Phil Woods
      >short list of those who went to Juliard

    • beanie says:

      Well, there are industry greats who took classes, but don’t spend the 2 or 4 years to get a degree. If you know someone who went to Berklee or Juilliard, you hear about it.

  5. jacquie says:

    After seeing the film, I am appalled that anyone could see Simmon’s horrific behavior and verbal abuse as art. It gives all the wrong messages by portraying abuse is the only way to achieve greatness. It was such a blatant overkill of demeaning abuse, making it a very difficult movie to watch. I kept hoping that there would be some redeeming value to sitting and watching it, at the end I did not see that value.

    • robuo says:

      So Jacquie, I’m guessing you have never performed as part if an elite music (or dance, or stage…) ensemble.

      Fletcher’s demeanor is not uncommon in the arts. It’s what, as he admitted later in the movie, drives people beyond their expectation of themselves. If you’ve never been driven beyond what you thought you could do, your life is, at best, an unopened package and, at worst, a total mediocre fraud and waste.

    • I actually see it. It was ugly. People around him keep quiet at every slur that comes out of his mouth. I was honestly afraid of him. That’s what the film is pointing out. But his abuse isn’t tolerated. . He’s sacked, remember?

  6. Max Cordero says:

    Hey just a question I thought it was a great movie but where did you get the idea

    • livingny says:

      I was at a screening with a Q&A after with JK Simmons. JK said that this story is based on Damien Chazelle’s life! It happened to him! He was a drummer that was abused by his teacher. JK also talked about how one of the guys in the band went to school with Damien and after one of his abusive scenes the guy ran over to Damien (or the Boy Wonder as JK referred to him) and said, “That’s Mr. (whatever his name was from school) OMG I can’t believe you wrote this about him! You’ve got balls!’ So this story is autobiographical and I’m sure pushed a little to the extreme. Although not so much so that a former student of that teacher realized who it was! They also played on every take! It was enhanced a little here and there but they were really playing!

  7. bob parson says:

    so excited! Release a trailer soon!!!

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