“Whiplash” Movie Review

     Writer/Director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is a kaleidoscopic mixing of razor sharp dialogue and high fidelity jazz that features two emotionally charged performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  The film is a tour de force in independent filmmaking as Chazelle brings the audience into the surprisingly mean spirited world of students who attend a prominent New York City music school with the intention of not only becoming a professional musician, but where some aspire to become a legend.  J.K. Simmons plays Mr. Fletcher, the school’s most respected jazz band professor, whose present day teaching style would find a welcome home within the walls of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Paris Island sometime around the late 1960s.  He berates his students with the kind of vitriol normally reserved for your most hated enemy, all in the name of his stated goal to bring out the very greatness seen in only a select few throughout musical history.  While some may dismiss a film that takes place primarily within the walls of a school music studio, Chazelle creates a thrilling drama with a smart script and an on point editing style that brilliantly combines the startling visuals of a talented student willing to succeed at all costs with a pulse pounding score of classic jazz tunes that seem to function and feel like characters themselves.

     Andrew (Miles Teller) may not come from a successful family, but he possesses the motivation and drive to be great at what he does.  His relentless dedication is challenged when he is pulled from a beginning band class and brought in as an understudy in Mr. Fletcher’s competition band class.  Fletcher’s band is the flagship jazz group for the school and there is no doubt Andrew knows exactly what kind of opportunity he is being given.  Outside of school, Andrew is a loner who typically talks with people while looking at the ground.  He barely has the confidence to talk to girls and seems to be kind of an outcast amongst his peers.  This all changes; however, once he takes a seat behind a drum set.  He is shown practicing hours before school starts in much the same way some of the great sports stars are said to be the first to get to practice and the last to leave.  Sweat drips off his face and his shirt is soaked as well.  He practices and perfects until his hands bleed literally and then simply re-bandages himself and drives on.  One morning Mr. Fletcher happens to observe this, thus creating what Andrew views as the opportunity of a lifetime.

     Once in the class, Andrew immediately sees for himself how Fletcher inspires members of the band to excel.  Fletcher asks the group to play a tune called “Whiplash”, but the band is practically unable to play a series of notes when Fletcher stops them, apparently hearing someone in the trumpet section is out of tune.  When no one admits it, he confronts an overweight student in the back row who we get the idea he has been riding for quite sometime now.  In much the same way Gunnery Sergeant Hartman belittled Private “Gomer Pyle” in “Full Metal Jacket”, Fletcher brings the kid to tears and kicks him out of the band permanently, but later revealing he wasn’t the one out of tune, he just wanted him out of the band because of his weight.  As if looking at the kid was some kind of an eye sore to him that he would just assume get rid of.  He tells the class stories of famed jazz musicians who had cymbals thrown at their head when they would mess up and how this kind of reminder catapulted them to greatness.  None of this seems to effect Andrew; however, as he is cool and confident playing the drums and even Fletcher’s initial attempts to get into Andrew’s head by way of demeaning him and his family seem to only make him want to succeed more.

     As a dinner table scene with Andrew, his father Jim (Paul Reiser), and some family friends tells us, he is extremely proud to be in a school and band that is considered to be the best in the country and is one of the few young people out there who is willing to put in the work and earn his spot.  This attitude, of course, begins to reflect negatively on Andrew’s standing as Fletcher continues to push him and Andrew becomes one of the few who are willing to stand up to Fletcher verbally.  While others stand locked at the position of attention when he walks in the room, Andrew begins to act as though he is achieving legendary status too quickly and Fletcher will not allow a student under him to challenge his established position and authority. 

     “Whiplash” brings to question many interesting points about how young people respond to different and varying types of teaching methods.  With the current “everybody gets a trophy” generation already having been slathered with endless encouragement, even after constant failure, you have to wonder how these youth would respond to the methods exhibited by Fletcher that were widely used in decades past.  In a one on one talk with Andrew, Fletcher tells him the two worst words in the English language are “good job”, thus meaning the recipient of those words may then feel he has done good enough and need not exhaust any further effort.  To Fletcher, this means his musicians will wallow in mediocrity, a notion that is completely unacceptable for him.  Unfortunately for his students, this means enduring not only constant belittling, but also regular violent outbursts as well.

     The film’s musical numbers shine not only in the way they are performed, but also visually thanks to the Oscar caliber editing done by Tom Cross.  Nearly every beat is accompanied by a different frame which effectively illustrates the complexity of the performance by all involved.  Most of all though, we get the non verbal emotion exhibited by Teller and Simmons as they snarl at one another during the film’s ongoing power struggle.  Chazelle effectively raises the stakes every time the band goes on stage with Fletcher looking to break Andrew down only to see him rise above and bring out the very best in himself.  To see this unfold over the film’s running time is to see not only the greatness the characters have set out to achieve, but a truly great film as well as the exhilaration you will experience in the film’s final act is indescribable.   GRADE: A