And I thought my high school band teacher was tough.
There are natural musicians on this planet; people who pick up a guitar, drumsticks or saxophone and play an instrument with an enviable ease as if it were an extra limb or vital organ with which they were born.
Then, there are the musical geniuses lying in wait, extraordinary musicians in training who require some sort of extra push to put them over the top.
Whiplash, the second feature from director Damien Chazelle, is about a young man who needs that extra push, a push that, to some extent, equates to a form of sadomasochism.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring drummer attending a musical conservatory in Manhattan. He practices late at night when nobody is around, which catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most elite jazz music teacher, who almost immediately sets to torturing the music out of Andrew.
It’s apparent that Fletcher sees something in Andrew early on, even though he’s terrorizing him. Andrew winds up in Fletcher’s band for a tryout, and those tryouts involve verbal emasculation and chairs being thrown at his head when he fails to meet Fletcher’s tempo.
The torture doesn’t stop during Andrew’s private practice time. We see him beating on his drums until blisters form and blood spouts from his hands. In his drive to be the best, Andrew is hard on himself. He puts himself through a hell almost worse than the punishing regimen inflicted upon him by Fletcher. Almost.
Those who watched HBO’s Oz know that Simmons is fully capable of playing the most heinous of human beasts. Fletcher is an amazing creation, an above-the-law terror who believes great musicians come from great suffering. As horrible a human being as he is, he truly thinks he is doing students a great service by withholding the reward of teacher approval. There will be no gold stars today.
Doing much of his own drumming to go along with his burning, compassionate performance, Teller opens himself up in an astonishing way both physically and emotionally. Whether he’s taking legitimate cracks to the face from Simmons, or screaming at his sweat-drenched self in a tiny practice chamber, Teller leaves it all on the drum kit, including his own blood.
The two onscreen together equate to fierce and tantalizing jazz music, at once perfectly complementing and challenging one another. Simmons and Teller together are the stuff of movie legend. Fletcher tears into Andrew like a crow ripping the flesh off of roadside carrion, and Andrew often convinces us that he is down for the count. Yet, he rises again and again.
Watching musicians kill each other in Whiplash makes you wonder if Mozart eviscerated himself while learning his piano parts, or whether Lennon and McCartney threw mic stands at one another when putting together The White Album. Great artistry can command unholy discipline, and unleash ungodly tempers. Fletcher makes the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket look like Pope Francis.
As Andrew’s loving father, a man who wishes he could protect his son from life’s monsters but knows that he can’t, Paul Reiser gets his best role in years. The film is stocked with actors and musicians who seem like the real thing. Whether they are responsible for every note we are hearing doesn’t matter because Chazelle and cast make it all seem authentic.
I thought Edward Norton had the Best Supporting Actor Oscar all wrapped up for his Birdman performance until I witnessed Simmons in this film. This is going to be an awards battle for the ages. As for Teller, he deserves a Best Actor nomination to go with his destroyed hands. He pulls off a physical and emotional demolition display on par with De Niro in Raging Bull.
Whiplash was filmed at breakneck speed, and Chazelle is a director of amazing precision. This is an all time great movie about music, as well as being an all time great character war. It’s not to be missed.