Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman
J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher
Melissa Benoist as Nicole
Paul Reiser as Andrew’s Father
Austin Stowell as Ryan
Jayson Blair as Travis
April Grace as Rachel Bornholdt
Damon Gupton as Mr. Kramer
C.J. Vana as Metz
Kavita Patil as Sophie
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old drum prodigy enrolled at the New York?s (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music who dreams of becoming one of the drumming greats. The best path to get there is to be accepted into the school’s competitive jazz band, conducted and led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew soon learns that Fletcher’s tough exterior is countered by a violent almost sociopathic drive to push his musicians to their limits in an attempt at getting the best from them.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that tackles a subject matter that really hasn’t been seen depicted in movies in such a distinctively unique manner. Even rarer is a film where that subject matter overlaps with my own interests and history in such a way that it surprises me that no one has set a movie in this world before. With a lot of awards and accolades already under its belt, Damien Chazelle’s masterful feature film debut as a director introduces the type of visionary that only presents themselves every few years, if even that.
Opening on Miles Teller’s Andrew playing drums in a practice room, we soon meet J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher, who conducts the music conservatory’s top jazz band, the one every musician who attends the school strives to be in. Fletcher’s repertoire includes complex arrangements of jazz standards like Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and he requires absolute dedication from every single member of the band. When Andrew finally gets to sit in with the band, Fletcher starts off easy on him but within minutes he’s throwing chairs and resorting to taunts and even getting physical with the 19 year old, which is when we see the true Fletcher – an absolutely merciless individual when it comes to achieving that elusive perfection.
To some, Fletcher will immediately be seen as some kind of monster, because in the real world, if we ever heard of a teacher behaving this poorly–even just the spouting of racist comments and expletives at students–we would be absolutely horrified. They would probably never be able to teach again. In the insular world of jazz academics, Fletcher can channel the demeanor of an R. Lee Ermey drill sergeant or a high school football coach and do whatever it takes to get his band into competitive shape. Certainly none of the musicians are going to question his actions.
In that sense, Fletcher is one of those spectacular movie “villains” we can’t help but love – Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” Javier Bardem in “Skyfall” or any Bond villain for that matter. It’s not about chewing up scenery but rather about completely embodying someone so confident and convinced what they’re doing is right that they’re willing to taunt and humiliate and even torture their adversary to prove their point.
Fletcher wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as an antagonist if Miles Teller didn’t create such a likable counterpart, making it that much more fun to watch him being humiliated while at the same time caring for his well-being and hoping he’ll get through it. From the first time we see him awkwardly approach Melissa Benoist’s Nicole at the movie counter where she works, Teller spouts the type of undeniable charm that’s done him so well over his relatively brief film career and that’s no different for Andrew. Until he starts changing due to the pressures put upon him by Fletcher, who uses all sorts of mind games to keep Andrew in line, constantly pitting him against other prospective drummers.
It is surprising how amusing and entertaining it is to watch this rivalry evolve over the course of the movie, especially once it becomes obvious Andrew isn’t going to let Fletcher get the upper hand and will do whatever it takes to prove he’s up to whatever is thrown his way.
Granted, “Whiplash” is for the most part a two-hander, but it would be wrong to completely ignore what the rest of the small cast bring to the story with scenes like those between Teller and Paul Reiser as his father, as well as those between Teller and Benoit.
Even going beyond Chazelle’s high quality of dialogue, cinephiles will be impressed by his use of quickly cut extreme close-ups sometimes just showing a sweat-covered cymbal or a drum as it’s being played or even just showing how hard Andre is pushing himself. This achieves a level of tension that even long-time filmmakers rarely are able to achieve.
It would be a travesty to reveal the movie’s big third act twist, but let’s just say the rivalry between Andrew and Fletcher doesn’t end in any way you could ever expect and leave it at that. We are given a small window into Fletcher’s head and why he pushes young musicians so hard, but that doesn’t last long before we’re back into seeing how devious he can be at enacting revenge on the younger upstart.
It’s ultimately a movie about the pleasures and pressures of being the best musician possible that doesn’t necessarily require the viewer to be a fan of jazz or even music, since it’s a story told entirely through the perspective of two conflicting characters who probably could have been placed in any environment.
The Bottom Line:
Few movies can achieve the highest benchmark of “perfection,” and movies like “Whiplash” only come along once in a blue moon. Being that I honestly can’t think of a single way this film could have possibly been better than it is, we can therefore assume that perfection has indeed been achieved.