Context. To me, reviewing movies is all about context. Context within the genre, context of the time the film was made, and, at times, the context of your own opinions, perspectives, and sensibilities. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “In order to criticize a movie, you must make another movie.” I don’t exactly know how I would react to last year’s Whiplash if I wasn’t an aspiring performer/artist. Regular folk might see this film as the stock, stale tale of the young performer who thinks he is so great, but has to work hard to truly the best, with the “help” of a demanding guide, who will push the young grasshopper to his limits. Or her, in the case of The Next Karate Kid. Hell, there’s a chance that I may not have responded to it, to the extent that I did, if it hadn’t clicked with me as it did. I don’t know. I do know that right here, right now: Whiplash is one of the best movies I have ever seen.
The film centers around a young man named Andrew Niemann, who is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory music school. His instrument of choice is the drums. His dream is ostensibly to be as big as his idols, Charlie Parker, Joe Jones, and Buddy Rich. The film however plops us right at the beginning of the major focal point of the film. It begins with Niemann practicing the drums when in comes teacher Terrence Fletcher. Immediately, he presents himself as a complex, sharp individual, getting on Niemann’s case about why he starts and stops playing in Fletcher’s presence. However, Fletcher is impressed enough that he brings Niemann into his studio band, which performs at competitions that are always won by Fletcher. It is then that Fletcher presents himself as not merely complex, but challenging, strict, and profoundly volatile, which takes its toll on Andrew. Through all these tribulations and struggles, Niemann has to fight for his dream.
Now, the way I described the plot makes this trite conceit sound much more intense than the average fare of this ilk. Well, that’s because...it is. For such a simple story, screenwriter Damien Chazelle holds nothing back. He puts our protagonist in situations that completely transcends the sanitized, maudlin tendencies of other films of this type. Consider a scene where Andrew Niemann is supposed to arrive onstage at 5:00 before the beginning of a jazz competition. He ends up having to get a rental car, but still arrives minutes late. Fletcher, of course, gets fiercely angry. However, Niemann discovers he left his drumsticks at the rental car place, so he has to rush back and get them, angering Fletcher even more. Niemann does this, but then, right before he can arrive back to the area of the competition at a reasonable time, a truck crashes right into him, flipping the car. Determined, however, he climbs out of the car, stumbles to the area of the competition, bloody, sweaty, and exhausted. His mental state is so weary and frazzled, but stalwart that he pushes through, but during rehearsal, he still ends up making mistakes, to the point where he has to sit out, which leads to even more conflicts.
Chazelle’s take on this repetitious story is gritty, gut-wrenching, and uncompromising. We see the true struggle of working your way to your major objective, complete with all the blood and completely devoid of the heavenly saviors who speak in forced, cliched nuggets of wisdom or the fantastical, superficial, convenient glimmers of hope that lead to a predictable, pseudo-triumphant happy ending. Technically, the ending isn’t per se a downer, but it isn’t played safe. The conclusion is refreshing and well-earned, complete with one of the most exhilarating, heart-pounding drum solos I have ever seen not merely in cinema, but in life, in general. Not only does Chazelle strikes the right tone in his screenplay, but his dialogue? Oh, my freaking God! I haven’t seen his previous effort, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, but if his dialogue in that film is anything like it is in this film, Chazelle is a guy you need to watch out for. His dialogue is so incisive, colorful, and full of life, be it his wonderful insults (some of the best I have ever seen in film) or the intricate, thoroughly-developed words of his characters.
On that note, let’s talk about these characters. And by characters, I mean the acting. Miles Teller has slowly been building up his repertoire in Hollywood, but if you thought all of that hard work culminated in his performance in The Spectacular Now...well, I actually haven’t seen that one yet, so maybe it did. I do know that if that film introduced him to the masses, this film is what will cement in into the collective consciousness. It’s astounding that even in the teeny-bopper, pretty-boy, ABC Family era of young male adult acting, we can still get actors like Miles Teller, who treat acting like it should be treated: seriously, showing a competence and virtuoso that will definitely allow him to stick around when the DiCaprio’s and Cooper’s and Damon’s of the world die off. He gives such an subtle, sincere performance as Andrew Niemann, actually selling us his story and his plight as opposed to just walking around as a dumbstruck, gullible, wind-up toy, strangling us with his shallow geniality, in order to exude likeability. Paul Reiser, in one of his biggest roles in over a decade, turns in a quiet yet affecting performance as Niemann’s father. Melissa Benoist plays Nicole, Andrew’s love interest, and she has an allure and sensitivity about her that might lead to her getting a starring role of her own. I sure hope so.
However, the standout, of course, is JK Simmons as Terrence Fletcher. From the first frame, he commands our attention. And it is masterful and astonishing the way he convincingly and seamlessly strikes every beat: stern, inviting, demanding, annoyed, warm, and most of all, passionate. Simmons does not merely bring life into this role; he gnashes this role, chews it up, and spits it back out, before giving a casual, affirmative bow to the audience. He can make the hair stand up on your neck and then make you laugh afterwards, and then after that, make you think. What an acting job!
The writing and the acting really bring the characters of Andrew and Terrence to life. The extraordinary thing about these characters is that, throughout the entire film, they manage to not only be likable, but identifiable. Andrew Niemann is the type of character who puts his dream before anything else, but we sympathize with him all the way. Consider a scene where after his family pays little attention to his dreams, he brutally patronizes his family’s aspirations, putting his dreams on a higher level of importance than others. Or a scene where he breaks up with Nicole, in order to focus on honing his craft. Or when he feels obligated to be the major drummer in the studio band. In any other actor’s hand, Andrew would come across as arrogant, but in this context, it is perfectly understandable, because he has that fire, that willpower, and he can’t let that die. He puts in the work and he wants to receive credit and he will totally attack you, in order to obtain the proper credit, which, for me at least, made me appreciate the character more.
The same goes with Fletcher. Some who see this film may only focus on how much of an asshole he is. And some who see his character as the basic archetype of the guy who is only harsh to push his pupils may just see him as a walking cliche. While it is a typical, rote justification underneath, the execution adds more to the role. Consider a scene where Andrew and Terrence are talking to each other at a club after some unfortunate circumstances. Terrence acknowledges his own histrionic, hostile style, but is unapologetic about it. However, it isn’t the kind of easy, self-esteem building, proud moment, like in other films. The only pity he feels is for himself. He doesn’t feel misunderstood, he is misunderstood. It’s so obvious that, again, you feel more respect for the character, despite his danger of tarnishing that in the following scene.
That’s the genius of the film. Both of these characters extend beyond the constraints of their stereotypes and not only come on top as real people, but as people worth caring about. Their actions are authentic and reasonable. Throw in the fabulous location of New York and the amazing cinematography, which comprises mostly of brilliantly dull, realistic hues of yellow, particularly in the class scenes, which heighten the sense of atmosphere, setting, and tone. Every element in this film is crafted assiduously and sharply. You go along with the film and then it instantly, rapidly dawns on you what an eloquent stroke of a film Chazelle has made. I wouldn’t call it a whiplash, but more so a rush; a rush to the senses, to the mind, and to the film industry, a rush that, in these simple, stagnant times of filmmaking, is so desperately needed.