“Whiplash” directed by Damien Chazelle, is a stunningly visceral movie about a young man attempting greatness through jazz drumming. Reveling in the dark side of achievement, it looks at the abuse and harassment one must endure to achieve immortality in art. Having a Professor that specializes in messing with student’s heads, the line between help and abuse becomes blurred. Jazz music is an exhilarating arena to highlight the psychological forces at play. Bustling with purpose and emotion from the first scene, it sustains neck-tossing tension throughout.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) lives and breathes Jazz music. He commonly can be found looking up at posters of drummers in his room as if they were prophets. Spending all his energy on ambition, Neyman is a quiet shy person while walking through hallways – always in thought. Taking a Jazz course at a music conservatory in New York City, he meets the intimidating Professor Julian Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). With a squiggly metal-like vein strapped across his forehead, Fletcher hurls insults at students without any regard to feeling. He wants the best out of his players, dangerously pushing them to the edge of their abilities and will.
In a society where greatness is currently being relegated to normality, Fletcher wants to push his students to a level of achievement not common anymore. He is an intriguingly oblique character; but does he want to help out – or are his intentions toxic? We know that good music sends him into a state of bliss – now seeming desperate to recapture it. Newman is pushed until blood and sweat covers his drum set; becoming one with his passion. Being so focused on success – he begins to sacrifice any pleasures in life. It makes clear that pain and greatness are synonymous.
Jazz drumming is a fantastic place to examine this student/mentor dichotomy. The music is notoriously dependent on precise drum beats; otherwise the horns and bass would drift into utter chaos. Presented in a spontaneous way as opposed to traditionally staged musical numbers, the music performances are enrapturing and play with the senses. The acting is top-notch with Teller wholly inhabiting a young impressionable man. J.K. Simmons is a frightening force of nature with enough humanity to suggest a good side as well. The director pushes everything to a bursting point, rushing against audience expectations.
This film is so rivetingly made and full of purpose that it transcends the source material. Here are two words to define the film: interactive and powerful. It reaches out to you as a viewer; and there isn’t a weak spot in it. A rare modern adult film that takes place in our times (like Scorsese); it isn’t a fantasy or historical bio-pic. Not only is it well-acted and visceral, but it’s about something we all can relate to – trying to be remembered. This all leads to one of the more gripping and exhilarating endings in recent memory. Marking the arrival of a major talent, “Whiplash” is one of the very best films of the year.
(4 out of 4 stars)
(Released: October 10, 2014)