MOVIE REVIEW: Whiplash

(Image: nytimes.com)

(Image: nytimes.com)

"WHIPLASH"-- 5 STARS

The new film "Whiplash" is an incredibly special film experience because of the multiple ways it transcends its preordained place as just some independent film that hit it off at the Sundance Film Festival.  Shot in 19 days and completed entirely in 10 short weeks on a budget just over $3 million, this film shouldn't have a production value, a refined look, and a sizable scope of a film with 20 times the checkbook balance, but it does.  Even more amazing, this started as a 2013 short film that needed festival sponsorship and notoriety to be expanded and recreated as the feature film it is now.  The improbabilities do not end there.

"Whiplash" is not a traditional teacher or education-set film, yet it contains one of the most dynamic and challenging mentor and pupil relationships you will ever see.  It achieves that with an up-and-coming performer that's known more for being a smart ass than a real talent and an older character actor that made us laugh those couple of times in comic book movies and hawks Farmers Insurance in TV commercials.  "Whiplash" is not a movie musical, but is an undoubtedly musical movie.  The film is packed with stellar performance elements that exceed toe-tapping and go straight to heart-stopping euphoric energy.  "Whiplash" is not designed to be a psychological thriller, but the film grabs your attention, moves unpredictably, and puts you on the edge of your seat better than any other film this year.

A movie like "Whiplash" shouldn't do all of that, and more, but it does.  Before you even read what it's about, be assured that this film is a delicious piece of entertainment from top to bottom.  This is a rare treat combining remarkable acting, music, energy, and twists that will follow you out of the theater.  As of the calendar turning to November, this is the best film this writer has seen this year.  This is the new film to beat, as unexpected as that sounds.

Let's dive in.  Miles Teller, the award-winning young star of "The Spectacular Now," is Andrew Neyman, a first-year drum student at the prestigious (and fictitious) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City.  At 19, Andrew has moved out of the house for the Big Apple to prove himself, chase his dreams, and get out from behind the shadow of his alpha male athletic brothers.  To ease the transition, his father (a rediscovered Paul Reiser) drops in from time to time to check on him and take him out to the movies, where Andrew has a crush on a cute theater usher named Nicole (Melissa Benoist of "Glee").    

For years, Andrew has idolized the works of Buddy Rich, the legendary jazz drummer who played for the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra.  The young man has ambition that aims high.  He's not looking for a resume filled with club gigs to pay the bills.  He wants greatness and knows a school of Shaffer's quality can pave that eventual road for him.  For now, he's regulating to turning pages for the first chair performers.  He just needs a shot to prove himself.  

All roads of success at Shaffer's conservatory go through its top instructor and core jazz band maestro, Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a man with a reputation for his rigid toughness and impossible expectations for perfection.  While practicing on the side, Andrew's drumming talent catches Fletcher's ear and he pulls the kid up the join the core band, leapfrogging his peers.  When thrust into the top spot, Andrew is forced to improve his playing or endure the obscenity-laden wrath of Fletcher, who can chew up and spit out even the most mentally capable professional.  

Fletcher's harsh techniques have earned him a level of success and fear that is untouchable to challenge or confrontation.  Nothing is given to anyone.  Everything is earned and everyone is replaceable.  The work to stay in that upper echelon consumes Andrew and creates an maddening obsession that leads to blood, sweat, and tears; three ingredients that permeate the demands of the position and the music itself.  The film's title, "Whiplash," is taken from one of band's top jazz pieces written by Hank Levy.

I can't get over the "feel" of this movie.  It's unquestionably raw with just the right amount of polish in the right places.  Once again, the improbable sources continue to emerge.  Justin Hurwitz is responsible for the exhilarating music that drives "Whiplash."  Listen to some samples here.  His largest previous credit is writing television episodes of "The League."  Cinematographer Sharone Meir employs a playful camera that captures this film's kinetic intensity.  He cut his teeth shooting "Coach Carter" and forgettable horror movies like "The Last House on the Left" and "Mean Creek."

The largest contribution to this film's tone are its two leads that light up the screen.  Miles Teller has always had limitless potential and charm.  Unlike his motormouth act from "The Spectacular Now" and alongside Zac Efron earlier this year in "That Awkward Moment," he embodies the seemingly lesser prey instead of the dashing predator.  He takes on the punching bag challenges of this role and sells the hell out of them.  Even more impressive, that's really him doing the drumming you see.  He's been an avid drummer since he was 15.  No hand doubles were necessary.  

Teller is excellent, but this film belongs to J.K. Simmons.  He owns every scene he's in.  For most folks, he'll always be J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films and the cool dad from "Juno" and skip his deeper work on HBO's "Oz" and NBC's "Law and Order" series.  He's a consummate and dependable character actor, but you will never look at him the same way again after "Whiplash."  His character's jarring short fuse temper and unfiltered acidic hate and arrogance are off the charts.  The presence of a character such as Terrance Fletcher elevates every limit and risk the film takes.  This is one of the most memorable supporting performances in years and is highly worthy of Oscar consideration.     

"Whiplash" is the second feature film from 29-year-old Damien Chazelle.  His vision and story sears the screen.  He has crafted psychological warfare in a setting that is approachable and interesting.  It does so with simple human expression and emotion.  It skips the extra hallucinogenic tricks and theatrics of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," a film "Whiplash" is wrongly being compared to.  It's better than "Black Swan." "Whiplash" should be a springboard that vaults Chazelle to bigger and better things.

To call this movie "The Little Engine that Could" is not enough.  "Whiplash" is better than that.  The film swept both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize as the top drama of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  The last two Grand Jury Prize winners from Sundance were "Fruitvale Station" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild."  "Whiplash" has earned itself enough critical acclaim to be an equal Oscar contender to those two independent films.  Coupled with "Birdman," they will be the small budget dark horses looking to compete with the bigger names and bigger studios.  Go with the little guy and seek this film out.  You'll be impressed.

LESSON #1: THE INTERNAL COMPETITION OF TOP-NOTCH MUSICAL BANDS-- Not all music groups come together for the fun of it like some open mic night at a coffee shop.  Not all music is as simple as a high school band making music for sporting events or concerts for class credit or an extracurricular activity.  On the other end, it's not all about record sales either.  For many, music is their livelihood and their chosen path for fame and success, equal to that of an athlete playing college sports and wanting to go professional.  There is a whole culture of professional schools and organizations (take Drum Corps International for example) where music is a field for intense competition, where money isn't the only driving force.  There is a competitive war to be named the best of their craft.  It happens at the internal level of who's "first chair" and rises all the way up to which band, school, performer, and leaders are considered greats.  In "Whiplash," you have a room full of people, teacher included, who want to be great.  

LESSON #2: THE DEMANDS OF PERFECTION-- Musical performance on the level of competitive bands requires an nearly inhuman amount of perfection.  With some many moving parts working together, one imperfect flaw can break an entire group or performance.  Therefore, the demands to always operate at this needed level of perfection are enormous.   The room for error is a fraction of a second.  Spots on these top group are earned and lost over it.  Reputations are won and lost over it.  Careers are made and killed over perfection.  These demands put psychological and physical tolls on people.

LESSON #3: BEING A GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT-- Much of "Whiplash" occupies the many hours of practice and rehearsal in Terrance's lair of a classroom.  Even in the mode of practice, the internal competition from Lesson #1 is in full swing.  This goes beyond the old adage of "practice makes perfect."  It's either perfect or you're gone with Terrance.  Students will claw at an opening to get ahead and take every volley of vitriol from Terrance to earn their place and respect.  It's a punishing environment that pushes Andrew to his physical and psychological limits.  As crazy as it sounds, he actually grows to like it, which then calls up the gluttony of the lesson.

LESSON #4: HOW CONFIDENCE IS BUILT UP AND HOW CONFIDENCE IS SHATTERED-- In "Whiplash" we see both the infectious acquisition of new confidence and the merciless destruction of it as well.  Succeeding in internal and formal competition breeds great confidence in Andrew and improved skill.  His fast success gives him a bit of an edge and a swagger that he's never tasted.  His head gets big.  Soon enough, at the first mistake, Terrance rips that confidence down and shatters Andrews spirit to put him back in his place.  This build-up and tear-down goes back and forth and becomes a vicious cycle that matches Lesson #3's gluttony.

LESSON #5: GREATNESS IS BORN FROM EXCEEDED LIMITS-- In a long sit-down with Andrew, Terrance reveals a little bit of what makes him such a hard teacher when he describes: "there are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'"  He is convinced that the good and the truly great are separated by the exceeded limits that the great ones were willing to sacrifice, work, or push themselves beyond.  Compliments and steady practice aren't enough to create greatness.  Greatness has to come from internal drive, not external forces.  The trailblazers are remembered for doing the things no one else was willing to do.  That's what Andrew wants, but that's also what Terrance is searching for.

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