Can one inspire greatness in another? Must there be some inherent ‘God-given’ talent present and more than just a crazy obsessive drive? Can an external force conjure a greatness and mastery in someone, and if so – what is the magic recipe? Is it through love, caring and support? Or rather is it achieved by forcing one’s subject through a wall of fire where it will never be good enough…until one day, maybe, it is? This is the question at the heart of WHIPLASH. Engaged in the darkest pas de deux of all time, a battle for their very souls, are Andrew, a passion filled jazz drumming student, and Fletcher, professor and leader of the most prestigious jazz band at the world’s most prestigious music conservatory. Being chosen for Fletcher’s Studio Band is the highest accomplishment possible and the portal to greatness for jazz students at what is clearly meant to be the Juilliard School of Music. When you are in a place where everyone is great, how do you become legendary? Hold on tight because you’re about to find out and it is not pretty.
Miles Teller plays Andrew and his performance is genuinely remarkable. He is a loner, and a student with a commitment so complete he will forsake all else in his pursuit of perfection. Wanting nothing less than greatness and unsure of just how talented he is in reality, he shows that he will stop at nothing to be the next Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa. To be the one. Frenzied, obsessed and tireless he practices until his hands are bloodied masses. Teller conveys a burning intensity that would be far less believable if the role were played by someone prettier or one of the current young ‘superstars.’ This is not to say that Andrew is not a compelling and appealing young man – he is – but more-so for his pathological commitment to perfection and mastery than his movie star looks. It is a performance which comes along rarely and will be referenced for years to come, and it is nothing short of extraordinary. WHIPLASH will no doubt launch Teller into the realm of superstar.
Fletcher, played by the typically congenial and accessible J.K. Simmons is one of the most terrifying characters ever penned. Simmons, who is often cast as the kind and benign friend, parent or boss, is a black clad rock hard enforcer, his skull pulsing with veins, his voice seething with volatility and rage. His teaching is aimed at one goal: to crumble, dominate and own the soul of those students he deems worthy. A muscular tower of oppression, cruelty, manipulation and force, you will never look at Simmons the same way again. The role of Fletcher is one of those career defining moments where suddenly everything you thought you knew and associated with an actor shifts suddenly under your feet, and it is a somatic experience. Your muscles, your breath, your entire being is rooted helplessly in his grip. Just like his students.
When Andrew is chosen to sit in with the Studio Band you can feel the cognitive dissonance between his thrill at being chosen and his terror of Fletcher. Even rumors in the halls cannot convey the ordeal that exists for his students. It forces Andrew to relinquish everything but his music; a brief attempt at romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), any possibility of acceptance and encouragement from his crushingly dismissive family, and for a spell, his sanity. Paul Reiser plays Andrew’s father who, despite his tremendous love for his son, can’t seem to summon a convincing belief in his talent or the worthiness of his musical career. Fletcher holds his students in a total reign of terror and Andrew, never safe, never secure in his position, keeps striving and bleeding to be the best, to prove his worthiness to a master for whom it will never be good enough. Pressed close to their faces, filling the screen in tight shots, J.K. Simmons penetrating voice and Miles Teller’s hopeful gaze are the only two people who really exist in WHIPLASH. There will be a victor, but the win won’t be pretty.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, WHIPLASH is an exquisitely written script which is straightforward and real, and the two actors are perfectly matched. The synergy between Simmons and Teller is uncanny and we can see how each seeps into the other’s psyche, like a slow poison, throughout the film. WHIPLASH never resorts to maudlin predictable scenarios but rather stuns us – more than once – while remaining believable in every way. It is an adept, heartrending and masterful film. Set in mid-town New York City, the film takes place largely at night with the harsh and blue white fluorescent glare of stores lighting Andrews world and harkens back to a time when jazz was king in New York. It is inspiring, harrowing, and completely consuming, and you will understand why “not my tempo” is the most terrifying phrase in the English language.(5 / 5)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Running Time: 107 minutes
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