Whiplash | Director Damien Chazelle | Score: 8.3
I had a conversation about this film before I got to see it with a friend of mine who couldn’t understand how a movie about a gifted student in a prestigious music school could offer much in the way of drama beyond that of Fame, or its ilk; a schmaltzy ode to the power of young-person artistic desire. But then, I very much doubt she was imagining a music professor screaming “I will fuck you like a pig!” at one of his utterly cowed students, either.
Damien Chazelle’s second feature is a stunning film filled with emotional sweep and poignancy, and best of all, the ambiguousness of its two main protagonists. It’s not a facile film coming to simple conclusions about its subject matter. Like its grand antagonist, the hard-driving, abusive jazz teacher Terence Sterling (J.K. Simmons), the film offers a sharply focused array of possibilities, allowing you to take away what you will, but not before drawing more than a little blood: Most of which shed by Andrew (Miles Teller), an auspicious young drummer in his first year at the (fictitious) Schaffer School of Music in New York.
Besotted by jazz greats like Buddy Guy and James Jones, Andrew assumes his time will surely come, especially after a chance meeting with the legendary Sterling one evening in his practice studio. When Sterling then invites him to join his studio Jazz band after a fast audition, Andrew imagines how easy it will be to wow him with his technique and chops. Only that’s not how it works for Sterling. Arriving at precisely 9:00 AM, with the other members, having nervously tuned and prepped themselves, standing at rapt attention, their faces pointed to floor, it quickly becomes clear Andrew is in no way prepared for the unconscionably demanding Sterling, who screams him into tears at their first session, a moment that earns him considerably more chagrin (“Oh, my dear God — are you one of those single tear people?” Fletcher asks incredulously).
Making Fletcher even more of a monster, he tears the boy apart by first setting him up, talking with him gently during the pre-practice warm-up, and getting the naïve Andrew to open up about his home life, including his writer father (Paul Reiser), who has had a limited career, and an absent mother who left him when he was a baby. It takes no time at all for Sterling to use this information against him during one of his tirades, blaming Andrew’s lack of precise timing as a result of having a talentless hack for a father and a mother who couldn’t wait to leave him.
In a relatively short period of time Andrew learns the only way he can survive Sterling’s onslaught and achieve his goal of being “one of the greats” is to pay for it not just in sweat and blood — though both flow freely during his grueling practice sessions — but to sublimate everything else in his life, including a fledgling romance with a sweet-faced Fordham co-ed (Melissa Benoist) — to his artistic mandate. Under constant stress and scrutiny by the indefatigable Sterling, and facing other challengers for the core chair from other players, Andrew eventually works himself up into such a lather he crawls out from the wreckage of a massive car accident and starts running down the street with his stick bag in tow in order to make a competition on time.
The film is impeccably shot and brilliantly acted, but what really sets it into rarefied air is the way it quickly shifts our sympathies back and forth between the two figures: Andrew, who starts out sweet-faced and cherubic, quickly learns to be every bit as ruthlessly competitive and unlikable as his teacher, eschewing any kind of socializing for his drumming obsession; while Sterling, the cruel taskmaster, starts proving a certain method to his madness, offering a philosophic bent on the nature of greatness and how one might be able to tap into it only if you pour everything you have into what you do.
By the film’s thrilling conclusion — let’s just say it involves a wild solo in front of a Lincoln Center audience with both men glaring daggers at one another — you switch sides back and forth as if watching a tennis contest at center court. Is Sterling a savagely bitter and intense bully, who twists everyone to bend to his incorrigible will, or is he simply a realist, pushing his students beyond what they think they can do for the soaring possibility of their talent? Chazelle’s excellent screenplay allows for both interpretations to be equally true, his vision enhanced greatly by the riveting performance of his two leads. It’s a virtuoso effort from a relatively obscure young filmmaker, but after his film’s incredible showing at Sundance (where it won both the critical jury and audience prizes), he will likely not be underestimated again.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor. His reviews can be found on his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.