Virtuosity is more than just a fancy word suggesting excellence in one’s field. It’s a life goal for many aspiring, dedicated musicians. As such, the drive to be great on one’s instrument is at the heart of the taut, wrenching drama Whiplash — the second feature-length movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
At its core, Whiplash depicts the combative yet symbiotic relationship between a young jazz drummer determined to achieve virtuoso status (and thus make a name for himself) and the offhandedly cruel conservatory instructor renowned for molding superb musicians but who does so with a teaching technique that borders on sadism. Miles Teller plays the single-minded Andrew Neyman, pushed to succeed in music in part because of his father’s failure as a writer. The kid chooses to practice and perfect his craft, eschewing all meaningful relationships other than the one he dives into with Terence Fletcher, leader of his school’s top jazz ensemble.
J.K. Simmons, known for such authoritarian roles as newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, is Fletcher — a brilliant, manipulative monster on a mission to whip his charges into the best they can be, regardless of potential emotional and physical damage. Although Fletcher is an accomplished man who gets results, he has his share of demons that lurk within, which could explain his vicious approach to his job.
The casting of the leads is inspired, with relative newcomer Teller, reminiscent of a young John Cusack, facing off against the experienced Simmons. Teller brings youthful energy and a certain element of callowness to his performance, while Simmons is the sly old hand — their acting skill sets cleverly reflecting the dynamic between Andrew and his mentor.
As told, the story incorporates somewhat significant characters beyond those two central figures. There are rival musicians vying to acquire or snatch a seat in the band by any means necessary, and those trying to hold on to the places they’ve won — for the time being. Paul Reiser, star and creator of the long-running relationship sitcom Mad About You, goes beyond his career profile as a comedian and impresses in the role of Andrew’s disappointed dad. And Melissa Benoist, a veteran of TV’s Glee, strikes all the right notes as Andrew’s disrespected love interest. But they all fade into the background when the conflict between student and teacher takes center stage, which is for the majority of the movie.
Whiplash only works if we feel Andrew’s struggle and understand the idea that the stakes are so high for him that disappointment, humiliation, a mental breakdown, or serious damage to his body are all distinct possibilities if he can’t reach the level of his aspirations. Even if he can earn the kudos he seeks, he’s still not immune from pain. That pain is palpable as the movie unfolds, reaching a fever pitch in a climax that is nothing short of shocking and, to be honest, a little over-the-top. But it achieves all it sets out to do. That could be in part due to the filmmaker’s familiarity with the subject. Chazelle has gone on record about his stint in an extremely competitive high school jazz band. If he indeed went through some of what Andrew confronts, it helped make Whiplash the tense and sometimes shattering movie that won the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature and Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Musical expertise can be brought to bear with the help of innate skill or it can be painstakingly achieved over time. In either case, it requires determination. If Whiplash brutally hammers home its message about the sacrifices one makes to attain mastery, it does so with the same power and potency that its hero attacks his kit.