Opening the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” may not seem to tread any new ground at first, with Andrew (Miles Teller) trying to thrive and survive in the hyper-competitive, hyper-stressed world of a Musical Conservatory in New York City. Andrew is talented and determined, and he will need both qualities when hard-driving Dr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) asks Andrew to sit in as an alternate on the school’s showcase competitive band. Events transpire that give Andrew the chance to succeed or fail, with Fletcher cajoling, threatening, flattering and inspiring Andrew in a brutal set of tests and tasks that comprise the kind of crucible that either makes one stronger or utterly destroys them…
The quest to be the best is a familiar film story, but if director-writer Chazelle has achieved anything here, it’s a deeply and richly different take on that journey—not only examining the cost of struggle but the reward of it, showing both what it takes to be great and what happens when you don’t have it. Chazelle is aided in this immeasurably by his actors. Miles Teller is, at this point, the best young male actor in America—possessed of both natural charisma and impeccable technique, his guy-next-door looks masking a singular intensity. Teller clearly has help playing the drums on-screen—you can hide a double’s face, but not their forearms—and at the same time, he has enough chops to minimize the number of cheats required and he also has the capacity to act in those moments of frantic drum-beating.
As for Simmons, while he may be familiar from his great work in everything from “Oz” and “Burn After Reading” to the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” films, it is fair to say that he has rarely been given the chance to go off the leash and run flat-out like he has here. Fletcher is a brute, a bully and a born leader; comparisons have been made to R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” but another cinematic predecessor that springs to mind is Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. ‘Bull’ Meechum in “The Great Santini”—a father-figure who cares less about the condition of his charges as they are than he cares about what they could be.
Chazelle’s direction is more notable for its lack of compromise than any aspect of technique or craft; Andrew and Fletcher’s interactions do not transpire in the ways we are conditioned to expect from other, similar films, and the shape the story takes as it unfolds has decidedly sharp edges. Watching Andrew play until his hands bleed, it’s easy to ask why he’s working so hard. It’s harder to watch him answer that question for himself. “Whiplash” is, as they say, a tough sell—I don’t know how many adults will be interested in watching the travails of a teen musician, and I don’t know how many teens will rush to a film about the work and agony required to play jazz drums. But movies should be tough, or at least tougher than they are now, and watching Teller and Simmons clash and collaborate gives you a rare chance to witness first-rate acting in a film that makes you sit up and recognize it as such.
Chazelle is aided substantially by his editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir—while cutting on the notes in a jazz flourish is a cliché, it’s also something we recognize as the visual grammar of jazz on-screen, and Chazelle and Cross manage to shoot the performance scenes in a way where our expectations are both met and subverted. There are also long shots of musicians at work that manage to cover both the human beings involved but also the mechanical process of making music that they’re the weakest part of—the thrum of a drumskin, the wet splat of a spit valve being cleaned out, the strain on a taut string. “Whiplash” is a second feature for Chazelle, and it’s exactly the kind of second feature that you hope for a young director to make—full of bravado and swagger, uncompromising where it needs to be, informed by great performances and patient with both its characters and the things that matter to them. “Whiplash” is about the cost of greatness, and it also demonstrates that for Chazelle, greatness may very well be possible. [B+]