It’s easy to celebrate musical genius after the fact, overlooking the endless early years of struggle, self-doubt and maniacal dedication that went into making artistry that seems effortless. Happily, that’s not the case with Whiplash, which thoughtfully considers talent’s emotional and physical toll, and for most of its running time this character drama remains ambivalent about the sacrifices needed for greatness. If a young hopeful ends up to be Charlie Parker, then the pain was worth it. But what happens if he doesn’t?
The film stars Miles Teller (fresh off his striking turn in last year’s Sundance hit The Spectacular Now) as Andrew, a first-year drum student at an elite New York music conservatory. With few friends and a father (Paul Reiser) he loves but also fears of becoming—his dad longed to be an author but wound up a high school teacher—Andrew has staked his entire future on becoming a drummer.
His goal is to catch the eye of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the intimidating, ruthless conductor of the school’s competitive jazz band. Fletcher immediately notices Andrew’s dedication, but his invitation to the young man to sit in with the group turns out to be a double-edged sword. The instructor’s admiration only means that he’s going to push Andrew incredibly hard, reducing him to tears and spraying demeaning, emasculating taunts until Andrew performs to his satisfaction. But Andrew doesn’t back down: To his mind, Fletcher’s verbal (and occasionally physical) harassment is a test by which the student can prove himself worthy.
Whiplash is the second feature from writer-director Damien Chazelle, who previously made another jazz-themed indie, the wised-up pseudo-musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Based on a short he screened at Sundance last year, Whiplash largely avoids taking sides in the mano-a-mano battle between Andrew and Fletcher. Although Fletcher’s expletive-laden, homophobic tirades would probably get him kicked out of most schools, in the universe of this movie his caustic behavior makes him a sort of drill-sergeant for aspiring musicians. To be sure, it’s an unconventional, high-stress world, but because Chazelle treats it matter-of-factly, he offhandedly manages to show the audience the agonies of striving for artistic greatness. We’ve seen similar stories in the area of dance—whether in The Red Shoes or Black Swan—but Whiplash stays away from the heightened melodrama of those films, and its modesty gives the story a grounded, hard-edged quality. Fletcher may be a tyrant and Andrew may be obsessed with drumming—he practices until he bleeds and rejects a perfectly good potential girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because he’s afraid she’ll slow him down—but the movie’s insistence on realism makes their fixations palpable, and oddly relatable.
That doesn’t mean that Chazelle doesn’t occasionally go for the contrived plot point when it suits him. Although Whiplash largely sidesteps the conventions of the inspirational-teacher/coming-of-age movie—his screenplay is too lively and restless for such clichés—the film cheats in the second half by throwing in phony obstacles and having the characters act in ways that seem antithetical to their demeanors. This especially is the case with an ending that, while skillfully put together, plays out as an easy resolution to Whiplash’s central conflict. Andrew is unquestionably a talented, driven drummer whose desire for greatness is to the detriment of everything else in his life. And yet, the movie never once suggests that the talent, drive and desire are enough for him to reach his dreams: Chazelle teases us with the possibility that Fletcher has been impressed by many pupils over the years, only to be disappointed when they didn’t live up to his impossibly high standards. Fletcher may be a heartless bully, but, as he himself explains, that’s the only way to drive the next budding Charlie Parker to find his genius. Without ever making it explicit, Whiplash asks what provokes greatness—Firmness? Unconditional encouragement? Letting it flower on its own?—and whether the demands that go into becoming the best are actually worth it. Chazelle wrestles with these questions through his two combatants, allowing for an uncertain, festering friction between these men. It’s too bad, then, that the finale opts for a too-clean outcome to such lingering uncertainties.
Even if Whiplash falters from time to time, the performances never do. Teller again shows his ability to play an outsider who’s not a stereotypical rebel or misfit but someone with great sensitivity and surprising anger. Quietly, Teller starts to reveal the depth of Andrew’s desperation, not just to become a world-class drummer but also to escape his father’s career failure and to prove to Fletcher that he’s got what it takes to succeed. Simmons is a fine complement in a far showier role. Fletcher is a little too maniacal and abusive to be completely believable—he’s more a convenient representation of artistic obstacles than a fully fleshed-out antagonist—but Simmons mitigates that problem by giving Fletcher an uncompromising steeliness. The character may be a dramatic exaggeration, but his intensity is such that he becomes a force of nature, albeit a somewhat one-dimensional one.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Release Date: Screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival