As a lapsed drummer myself, I watched "Whiplash," the new picture written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with keen interest. To call this movie "dramatic" is like calling Katrina a spring shower. This picture is a hurricane. It tells the story of a young man (a boy, really) and his monstrous mentor. This boy is Andrew (Miles Teller), whom we first observe at the end of a dark hallway practicing his drum set in a practice room at an elite music conservatory, Shaffer Academy. He aspires to be a great jazz drummer like his hero, Buddy Rich.
The mentor is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), one of those charismatic, temperamental, exacting teachers with whom every ambitious student dreams of studying. Dressed in black, he materializes from the darkness, his great bald pate aglow, in a pleasing chiaroscuro composition by cinematographer Sharone Meir. Andrew solos for him. He leaves without comment. On one level, the movie will be a boxing match between Andrew and Fletcher.
As Andrew, Miles Teller gives this performance everything he's got: he sure appears to be playing, or rather smashing, those drums himself, practicing hour and hour, playing until the sweat, and the blood, spatter off the drums. Andrew is driven, focused, obsessed. There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here. He wants to be remembered. He wants to fly like Bird.
A great teacher can inspire you to do things you never knew you could, but if cruder hands are doing the limit-pushing, the pupil can break. It's a dangerous line to walk. Like a sadist, Fletcher zeroes in on a kid's weakest flaw. To an overweight sax player who is averting his eyes, he shouts: don't look down, there's no Happy Meal down there! He doesn't just cross the line: he rages all over it.
The challenge Fletcher places before the kids is to play a piece called "Whiplash," with its breakneck chord changes and zigzag time shifts. He'll berate them: Not my tempo! Not my tempo!! The irony is that Fletcher misses the point of music, which has relatively little to do with playing in perfect tempo or tuning, and everything to do with how it makes you feel. Miraculously, his kids still manage to swing even though he's got them so wound up.
My baby Karolyn, a teacher herself, could not approve of Fletcher's pedagogical methods: punching the kids and throwing things at them does not earn her seal of approval. Yet we had to laugh, he's so wildly inappropriate. Fletcher says all the brutally honest things I imagine a teacher dreams of saying to recalcitrant students but never actually would.
The way Fletcher treats Andrew becomes the way he treats others. His dad (Paul Reiser), whom he loves, who is a writer and tries to give his son some perspective ("it's just life"), perhaps seems weak compared to Fletcher, seems to have settled when he could have published more. Andrew even alienates his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) when he senses she doesn't have enough focus and ambition. Besides, she'd only distract him.
J.K. Simmons gives a furious, scary performance as Fletcher. His students fear him, and so do we. We steel ourselves when he walks into the room. What's scary is that friendly smile. It's warm, insinuating: as Karolyn said, you could get lost in the folds of his wrinkles. The smile disarms you. He holds himself with an iron core in his ripped body, but at the same time he's relaxed, stylish: a groovy drill sergeant. He'll yell homophobic insults, but he leans into Andrew the way a bounder might corner a lady he likes at a party.
We keep thinking Fletcher's cruelty will be revealed as a form of tough love, that he's really doing it all in the best interests of his students. But no. You can debate whether he really loves music: we see the tender way he plays piano at a club date late in the film. But there is no doubt that he does not have the students' interests at heart. In fact, he would rather crush talent than nurture it. That's if he can even recognize talent when he sees it, which is doubtful: after all, it's right there in front of him in Andrew, and he just wants to destroy him.
Anyone who loves jazz will be be thrilled by the performance sequences. These are sustained feats of music and montage, bravura, furious filmmaking, a true sensory experience. Chazelle's moving camera and Tom Cross's virtuoso editing put us on that stool with Miles, riding a roller coaster wave of tom-toms, bass drum, and swirling cymbals. The latent drummer in me emerged: I found myself air-drumming along. The filmmaking puts you in that zone, in that bubble, under that spotlight up on stage where it's just you and those drums, and there's one shot. And you're giving it everything you've got. And you're becoming everything you ever dreamed. Not because of Fletcher, but in spite of him. The question the film leave us with: does it amount to the same thing?
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)