Whiplash (2014) Film Review from the 58th Annual BFI London Film Festival, a movie directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Kavita Patil, Kofi Siriboe, Jayson Blair, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, and Paul Reiser.
Whiplash arrived at the London Film Festival hot on the heels of its success at Cannes and Toronto. The first major directorial project from Damien Chazelle, had been highly praised for its interesting look at the traditional mentor/mentee relationship. Even the trailer for the film gave glimpses of something special, and I can honestly say I wasn’t disappointed.
The film, heavily influenced by the director’s love of jazz, shows the journey of Andrew Neiman (Teller), as he navigates his way through the fictional ‘Shaffer Conservatory of Music’ in Manhattan. Andrew is an aspiring Jazz drummer, who wants nothing more than to be the best. One day, while practicing on his drum kit, he is joined by the famed Terrance Fletcher (J.K.Simmons), who walks in during Andrew’s drum session. Fletcher is immediately impressed by Andrew’s ability and invites him to become part of the studio band.
Even early on its apparent Fletcher is more like a drill sergeant than your typical mentor. He makes it his goal to de-humanize, emasculate, and generally berate his students over the smallest error. He hears everything. Every missed note, every mistimed action, everything! This is what Andrew learns during his first sit-in with the band. He is humiliated and openly weeps, which incidentally leads to more bullying. Fletcher doesn’t tolerate weakness and he sees a lot of weakness in Andrew. His methods, though cruel and undignified, force Andrew to dig deep within himself and pull out more talent than even he knew he had.
I don’t want to make this film seem as simplistic as all that, because it’s really not. Sometimes there aren’t happy endings, sometimes films decide to take a different route, a more realistic one. This is a story about what it takes to reach perfection. Fletcher seems to think perfection is gained via fear rather than complacency, to quote him in the film: “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job’.” The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is part of what makes this film so great. Andrew clearly sees Fletcher as a father figure; the father who pushes him to be better, even if it means belittling him. He seems to relish the challenge.
Andrew’s relationship with his real father is far less interesting, yet still complicated. To put it simply, Andrew sees his father, and his family, for that matter, as failures. He doesn’t want to be stuck in mediocrity and he sees music as his way to greatness. This also explains why he’s willing to take all the abuse; like getting slapped by Fletcher.
Another important player in the film is Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl of Andrew’s desire. Though, initially not even able to speak to her, he eventually gains enough confidence to initiate a conversation and they slowly become closer. Eventually, Andrew comes to realize he’ll have to make a choice. He can either choose the girl or he can keep practicing. He can’t do both, not well anyway.
Whiplash shows the level of obsession required to reach the top-tier. It sheds light on the struggle of a young man who is essentially fighting against himself. The choices he makes now will determine his future. Though adversity and rejection maybe strong motivators for some, they can be destructive for others. Part of the film’s charm comes not from the out-spoken Fletcher, but instead from the hunger and determination of Andrew, who like most people just wants to be all he can be.
J.K.Simmons shows his full range portraying Fletcher as a complex character who just can’t be dismissed as an angry homophobe or a tyrannical teacher. His words though hurtful, are ultimately aimed to serve a purpose. This felt like a role specifically scripted for Simmons. His chemistry with Teller was equally enchanting and enough reason to see the film.