Intense musical drama is tough enough to make the kids from “Glee” cry ... more than they normally do
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Ah, the training montage, that old Hollywood standby. You know it by heart. Close your eyes and you can picture it, cut for cut. Our hero or heroine has lost out, been defeated or otherwise come up short in their quest to achieve whatever it is they’re trying to achieve. At this point they’re required to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and train really hard at boxing or dancing or martial arts or whatever it may be. Ideally, there’s an inspirational rock tune to accompany the rapid-fire collection of images to follow—like, for example, Survivor’s iconic “Eye of the Tiger.” Now imagine, if you can, an entire movie based on that early third-act comeback.
In the hard-hitting (in more ways than one) musical drama Whiplash, up-and-comer Miles Teller (Footloose, The Spectacular Now, Divergent) is Andrew, a first-year student at a prestigious New York music academy. Shy but brimming with potential, he’s studying to become a professional musician. Since he was a kid, he’s dreamed of being a world-famous jazz drummer like Buddy Rich or ... some other world-famous jazz drummer. One day, Andrew’s skin-banging catches the ear of legendary instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is infamous around campus as the toughest teacher around. He’s like a combination between Harry James and R. Lee Ermey, a demonic taskmaster who can tell if a student has it or doesn’t have it in a single note. Does Andrew have it? Maybe.
What follows is a grueling training regimen that puts ordinary 3-minute montages to shame. Unlike other school-based drumming films like ... oh, Drumline (wow, I can’t believe I came up with another example), Whiplash isn’t some feel-good, come-
Andrew and Fletcher are on screen together for nearly the entire film. And it is their suspenseful, psychological battle of wills that drives the narrative toward its climax. Will Andrew become the musician he’s meant to be? Or will he crack under the pressure?
Dedicated as Andrew is, he’s got nothing on Fletcher, who believes if you’re not bleeding for your art, you’re a pansy cocksucker. (His words, not mine.) Fletcher indoctrinates Andrew into the bebop arts by pushing, berating, manipulating, bullying, goading and occasionally beating the kid. It’s kind of like the boot camp scenes from Full Metal Jacket, but in 4/4 time. Is Fletcher some kind of musical sadist, or is he simply uncompromising in his pursuit of pure genius?
Simmons, who’s made his bones as one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors (Spider-Man, Juno, “Oz,” “Law & Order: SVU”), delivers a powerful performance. Fletcher is a monster. But he’s a righteous monster, fiercely dedicated to the art and craft of jazz. He’s the kind of guy who believes “good job” are the worst words in the English language. There’s something equally admirable and frustrating in his purity of focus. But it’s the tiny moments of sympathy and acid-dipped wit Simmons finds that make Fletcher a compelling human being as opposed to a one-note villain. Teller, who’s got the makings of a fine everyman actor, matches Simmons beat-for-beat. This could be melodramatic stuff, and it kind of is. But writer-director Damien Chazelle (whose biggest credit to date comes from penning The Last Exorcism Part II) concentrates on the theatrical drama of it all, allowing his actors to wallow in the contentious, spittle-flecked back-and-forth of their love/hate relationship. There are a handful of background characters (Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad, Melissa Benoist as a possible love interest), but this is basically a two-hander. Andrew and Fletcher are on screen together for nearly the entire film. And it is their suspenseful, psychological battle of wills that drives the narrative toward its climax. Will Andrew become the musician he’s meant to be? Or will he crack under the pressure? Will Fletcher prove himself the perfect mentor? Or will he turn out to be skee-skat-skoodelly nuts? To his credit Chazelle finds a perfectly cathartic, refreshingly schmaltz-free coda to end on.
It goes without saying that Whiplash is a must-see for any jazz drummers out there. But that’s kind of a limited audience. Fortunately, this anti-Dead Poets Society goes far beyond mere musical lessons. So even if you don’t know a paradiddle from a pataflafla (yup, I looked those up), you’ll find some intense drama in this electrifying ode to the old axiom “practice makes perfect.”