Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Miles Teller was one of the breakout stars of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, delivering a layered, affecting performance as an alcoholic high school student in The Spectacular Now It’s great to see the talented young actor back at Sundance so soon, and he’s actually playing a very different part, showing off an entirely separate skill set. In Whiplash, Teller portrays Andrew, a music student in New York City who wants to be a famous drummer. Andrew practices obsessively, and his passion and drive only increase when he is selected by ruthless teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to have an incredible shot at being part of his esteemed band.
Andrew is first seen practicing in a room by himself, and after Fletcher comes by and observes him, he is plucked from his band the next day to join the big leagues. Fletcher, who demeans his students and abuses them verbally and often physically, tells Andrew that he should relax and has nothing to worry about. During the first practice, that is shown to be wholly untrue, as Andrew’s inability to match Fletcher’s “sound” earns him endless ridicule from Fletcher and a few slaps to the face.
From there, things only get worse. One particularly memorable and horrifying scene finds Fletcher alternating Andrew and two other drummers for hours on end as they each get mere seconds to try to play to Fletcher’s liking. The rest of the band is dismissed during that time, and all three drummers have blood-soaked hands and demoralized spirits by the end. Fletcher’s reputation and his demand for greatness pushes Andrew and his bandmates further into self-abuse, encouraging Andrew to prioritize his music over human relationships and to shut out the rest of the world in the pursuit of impressing his teacher.
Teller’s performance is a much more muted one than in The Spectacular Now, as he rarely speaks, and when he does it usually represents an outburst of defense towards Fletcher or angry resentment against his family members who devalue his chosen field. Teller really shows off his musical abilities, and it’s impressive to see him zone in and play the drums for minutes on end, rarely missing a beat in the search for the impossibly precise sound Fletcher demands. Simmons matches Andrew’s hard worker with a completely brutal and relentless performance as the unkind Fletcher, who believes that any form of positive encouragement is absolutely detrimental to a musician’s success because it will not inspire them to try harder to become even better.
The music of Whiplash is great, when it’s not being interrupted by a swift closing of Fletcher’s fist. The story surrounding the music is a relatively familiar one which emphasizes determination, passion, and talent. It manages to push the limits considerably, echoing Fletcher’s bullying of Andrew, going over the line and not bothering to look back to see how far it’s gone. When those boundaries become somewhat blurred and the film ventures too far outside the realm of possibility and believability, it’s not as strong, but it makes up for those moments with its lead performances and fantastic showcase of music.
This film is screening at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer