'Whiplash' Explores the Pursuit of Greatness
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons impress as student and teacher at an intimidating Juilliard-like school.
I love movies about prodigies. Little Man Tate was big for me growing up, but Searching For Bobby Fischer is my favorite. There's something thrilling about a kid who's smarter than the adults—especially when you're a kid yourself. I suppose that notion is at the heart of Whiplash, writer/director Damien Chazelle's new film about a young jazz drums student. It's a movie about being the best at one thing, an idea that speaks to all of us because we were all young once and we've all dreamed of greatness. But what does it take to actually get there?
In Whiplash, getting there means getting abused. At the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, the film's Juilliard stand-in, freshman drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) impresses the school's legendary teacher, Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) enough to get a coveted invite to his master class. Full of confidence and excited to get started, Andrew gets a drum thrown at his head as Fletcher crushes him verbally in front of everyone. "The great ones don't get discouraged." Fletcher says later. Meanwhile, Andrew breaks down.
Stylistically, Whiplash is in constant rhythm. Chazelle, a former Juilliard student, edits to the music like Spike Lee or Jon Favreau did in Swingers. The film reeks of jazz and of the people who teach it, master it, and take it very fucking seriously. The greats—Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker—are talked about reverentially, like gods on a distant planet. And the film is full of the lingo: the kit, the core, and the sticks. Chazelle, who also wrote the script, makes sure we understand the gravity of this life and the reality of the art form.
We also get that idea from Teller, who wants to be the best and tells everyone so in a very tense family dinner scene where he makes fun of his brother's football accomplishments. His father (Paul Reiser) loves him dearly and supports him, but Andrew is largely alone. He breaks up with his new girlfriend so he can concentrate on his music. She'll hold him back, he tells her. He can't have relationships because everything has to be about the music. To achieve greatness, we've learned, one must suffer in the classroom and, now, in life.
To appreciate Whiplash, you really have to buy into the deathly seriousness of it all: of drumming and of the pursuit of greatness. Chazelle and Teller do their part, but it's really Simmons' movie in many ways. Without Fletcher, Andrew wouldn't be so self-righteous about his art. Fletcher is the Michael Jordan of the Shaffer School and as long as Andrew thinks he's learning from Jordan, he'll sacrifice everything to impress him.
Fletcher doesn't disappoint, and neither does Simmons in the role. He's the ultimate manipulator, using his students' rivalries to motivate and discover the truths of their souls. Fletcher is the type of guy who can uplift the spirit or crush it like Styrofoam and Simmons is perfect. This is exactly the type of role we've all been waiting for from him. He's physically imposing, strutting around the classroom and doling out lessons with an air of confidence that would make anyone shudder. He challenges his students. He threatens them. But he also seduces them and can turn on the charm when needed.
Whiplash is grounded by its two great lead performances, by Teller and Simmons, but Chazelle's story is full of dramatic highs and lows and a grand finale that really pays off. It's a tense film about power above all. It's about the power of finding your path, your teacher, and then trusting yourself despite education. It's basically Star Wars or Ender's Game, except set in a music school. Also, Chazelle doesn't indict or condemn Fletcher's extreme teaching methods. His film doesn't promise answers or give them, it explores the process of the artistic pursuit and the power struggle inherent within it.