Concert in the Americas. Frank Sinatra introduces the “great Buddy Rich”, who strolls onto the stage and takes his seat behind the familiar drum set. About three minutes in, he begins an immaculate solo. Sweat pours from his brow. His breathing quickens. His hands move so fast sometimes they cannot be seen. At one point a stagehand has to readjust his cymbal stand. He looks like he’s in physical agony, and maybe he is, but we know that jazz consumes him; physical agony comes with the territory. Watching it, one cannot fathom another human being attacking a drum set with such precise ferocity, until we meet Andrew Neyman, the young aspiring drummer who begins Whiplash thinking he’s good and ends it knowing he’s great.
Whiplash is a movie about two musicians who look at the world of jazz and see absolute perfection. One of them is a maestro. He’s the head conductor at Shaffer’s Music Conservatory in New York (best in the country) and in charge of its studio band. The other is Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who has posters of Miles Davis on his bedroom walls and Buddy Rich CDs strewn about his desk. He wants to make it to the studio band.
The maestro is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Bald, dressed in black, speaking the language of jazz shrouded in military commands. He’s a hard man with an impeccable ear for his music. Picture R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket (1987) crossed with Antonio Salieri. Simmons delivers one of the all time great performances here, playing a man who knows his music so well he will be damned if other people screw it up for him (watch the way he asks his musicians to play a note and knows, immediately, if they’re up to tempo or in tune. It’s magic). He commands the room.
Consider the students at Shaffer’s. They are good musicians, no doubt, but the ones in the studio band live in fear. They fear having to duck when a chair is flung across the room at their heads because they’ve played a note out of key. When Terence speaks, their heads are bowed in submission. Eye contact could mean expulsion, or worse.
But Terence is not a dictator. He is an aficionado with an edge. He demands perfection because in his ears, jazz is perfect. He’s like the unorthodox teacher with mean methods and good intentions. Consider this scene. Andrew Neyman has just been offered a place as core drummer for the studio band. He’s nervous. Something might fly at his head. Terence sees him cowering in the corridor and begins a conversation about Andrew’s family. He tries to calm him down. He smiles and speaks softly. “Now go in there and have some fun”. Well, that wasn’t so bad! And then Andrew begins to mess up during practice. Watch how Terence shifts gears in an instant, from friend to assailant. He could be mildly bipolar, but the movie never touches on that.
Andrew is a hardworking young boy. We almost feel for him. His parents have separated; he lives with his dad (Paul Reiser), who enjoys eating popcorn with raisins. They’ve got a good relationship. As good as a movie of this sort will allow. But Andrew is hopeless with girls. He tries his luck with the cute cinema attendant. They start dating. But then Andrew comes to the realisation that drumming is the most important thing in his life right now, and the girl, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), will only be getting in his way. There is a heartbreaking scene in a diner, and we feel for Nicole the way we feel for Erica Albright in The Social Network (2010), because she’s dealing with a boy who has tunnel-vision and lacks the social skills to say the right thing, even if he doesn’t mean it.
Andrew focuses on his drumming like Nina Sayers focuses on Swan Lake. There is a burning obsession within him. He must be great. He must battle Terence’s put downs and prove that he has earned the privilege of core drummer. Sometimes he feels he is being treated unfairly, as when Terence brings in a third drummer to try out for the part. But when Terence tortures all three drummers till 2 in the morning, till their hands bleed, we know Andrew is not alone.
There are Oscar-worthy performances in this movie. Teller does his own drumming, which I think is laudable. He doesn’t quite reach the greatness of Buddy Rich. Maybe a few more bloodied hands. Simmons is perfectly conniving and vile. In any other movie he’d be labelled the villain, but Whiplash doesn’t have time for heroes and villains; both its leading men are obnoxious. This doesn’t really hurt the movie, but a more likeable Andrew, with more to lose, would have made his obsession much more empathetic. Or maybe not. Maybe Whiplash needs two colossal egos to fight it out to the death.
The movie, written and directed by 29 year old Damien Chazelle, is crafted with a blistering pace. It is not like your usual teacher/prodigy movie. It doesn’t shortchange itself by producing a preordained climax. It builds up slowly but loudly, with the relationship between Andrew and Terence as its centrepiece. There are the expected competitions, which are usually the showstoppers in movies like this, but Chazelle avoids cliche, particularly during the final competition, which is a masterclass of double-crosses, villainy, tension and glorious triumph. Throughout the movie Andrew and Terence appear to hate each other. During this final showdown, they at least arrive at mutual respect. And we, as the audience, are left breathless and spellbound.
Best Moment | All of it, especially the end.
Worst Moment | The diner scene.