Andrew Neyman has a problem. Played by Miles Teller in the Oscar-winning film “Whiplash,” he’s an ambitious musician, a drummer in one of the elite music schools in the country. When the school’s top jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), brings him on board his top ensemble, the sun seems to shine brighter on Andrew’s side of the street. But Fletcher’s teaching methods are unusually brutal, and Neyman’s desire to “be one of the Greats” becomes his problem, as he steadily falls victim to his own ambitions, and to the cruel motivations suffered under Fletcher’s tutelage. Things spiral out of control as Andrew must unblanket in his own mind the line between music and madness, between sacrifice and self-destruction.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” is a movie that is rivetingly alive, unapologetically showy and contrived at times, but cracking and vibrating like a fusillade of rim shots on a tight-wound snare drum. The game is bumped up by Tom Cross’ tight, melodic editing, which is wedded with astonishing skill to the music by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, and to cinematographer Sharone Meir’s fluid camera movements.
Maybe it’s not news that “Whiplash” is a burstingly energetic update on the gruff D.I./raw recruit Army film. Think Richard Gere vs. Louis Gossett, Jr., with drum fills instead of pushups. And way, way better tunes.
But that somewhat glib comparison sells “Whiplash” short. Chazelle is working with a different game in mind, one that is edgier, more questioning and more rewarding. In the war movies, the D.I. may be harsh, punishing even, yet usually drawn as a two-fisted angel, with obvious best intentions of survival at heart. Chazelle’s revision resists such comforts. Almost from the first frames, Fletcher is indefensibly brutal, a heartless taskmaster, equally brilliant in crushing spirits as he is at shaping musical precision. And the question of his real intent is a shadowy one at best.
This gives “Whiplash” a refreshing, defiantly edgy pulse, and sharpens the conflict without providing glib conclusions, forcing the viewer to probe Neyman’s own motivations. You ask the question “Why are you putting up with this shit?” In the war movie, it’s obvious. You put up with it because it’s life or death. Maybe Chazelle is saying that pushing for greatness is a kind of personal war, but I’m not convinced of that. Chazelle’s script provides only tantalizing possibilities, interpretations of motive that are slippery even to the characters, but still seem truly rooted in that grubby turf where ambition and artistry intertwine.
Simmons’ performance is a marvel of muscular verbal fury, whip-crack timing, and a keen grasp of the darker, insidious side of ‘motivational’ leaders. His recent running-the-table during awards season is as well-deserved as it was unsurprising. In the last reel, Fletcher gives an eloquent speech about why he pushes so hard, about the dangers of the words ‘good job.’ I believed that Fletcher believes that speech. I shouldn’t, because there’s clearly something much darker at work in him than just motivation. But I did believe it, and Simmons’ presence is the reason that speech works.
With a lesser actor opposite him, the cruel magnetism of Fletcher could swallow the movie whole. So credit also to Miles Teller, whose performance keeps Neyman’s drive and emotions both believable and central to the narrative. And it’s difficult to overstate the impact that Teller provides by actually playing the drums. It sounds obvious, but music movies where the musician is clearly faking, even when done well, can’t help but bang the gong of phoniness. Teller brings the goods here, forceful and driving and show-offy in a most appropriate fashion.
The Blu-ray disc of “Whiplash” is an excellent transfer, 1080p high Definition in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The stormy rehearsal sequences have a compelling shadowiness to them, and the stage lights of the final concert sequence pop as they should. Subtitle tracks are available in English, English SDH, French and Spanish. Access code for an Ultraviolet digital copy is included.
Given the pivotal role of sound in “Whiplash,” this generous, full-bodied audio track thwacks with authority. All three audio tracks (English, French and Spanish) are in clear and well-balanced DTS-HD Master Audio, and there is an audio description track in 5.1 Dolby Digital.
- commentary track with writer/director Damien Chazelle and star J.K. Simmons
- “Fletcher At Home” –An intriguing deleted scene, with commentary
- A short but entertaining audience Q & A with Chazelle, Simmons and co-star Miles Teller after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival
- The original short film shot by Chazelle to drum up backing for the full-length feature. Interesting to see how much was carried over whole-cloth into the feature film, and what they adapted. There’s an enjoyable commentary track to go along with it, featuring Chazelle, editor Tom Cross and the film’s producers
- “Timekeepers” – interviews with professional drummers about their history with the drum kit, including Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Erskine of Weather Report, Gina Schocky of The Go-Gos, and Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp’s drummer). Worth a look, especially if you’re familiar with the players.
“Whiplash” is an invigorating, relentlessly compelling profile of the costs of ambition, and the meaning of artistic sacrifice.