You won’t know what hit you.
I was a junior in high school when my dad took me out to a cabin in Montana for a “vacation.” I put “vacation” in quotations because we practiced music for nearly three hours every single day. I was a tuba player back then, and I practiced with my dad so I could make it into the All-Region band. One day, I wasn’t playing a single measure correctly. The notes I was supposed to play were on the downbeat, and I kept playing them on the upbeat. My dad made me play that verse over, and over, and over, and over again. He would get frustrated at me, yell at me, and push me harder and harder until I played that verse perfectly 100 times. I played that same frothy, infuriating verse for all three hours that day.
I say this to show you that the stuff you see in Whiplash isn’t fiction. It’s as feasible as the music you see, as vibrant as the drum beats you hear in a song, and as real as the passion that drives any musician, writer, and aspiring artist out there. Whiplash is special not just because it’s unique, but because it carries an uncanny truth for those who aspire to greatness. Perfection is never good enough. You’re pushing yourself over the edge just as much as the people around you are.
The kid aspiring to greatness in this story is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a mild-mannered college musician who aspires to be the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich on the drums. The man he thinks can make him great is Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but brash and at times violent instructor who will throw a chair at you if you’re either rushing or dragging the tempo.
If you think I’m saying that figuratively, I’m not. That literally happens to Neiman during his first rehearsal with Fletcher in the movie.
Neiman aims to be the best drummer out in the world. Fletcher aims to be the best instructor in the world. These two men and their intense passions for their goals builds into a riveting, thrilling, and emotionally vigorous journey that is more involving and exciting than most of the year’s biggest action blockbusters. Yes, I am placing this above the likes of Transformers, Godzilla, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s that good.
How is it that this movie leaves such a lasting impact, when most people haven’t seen it, let alone heard about it? One of the biggest reasons, I think, is conflict. This is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort into film, his debut feature being the 2009 jazz film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Both films are about jazz musicians, both are about people aspiring to other’s aspirations, and both are about never being good enough for those end goals.
There, however, is a sharp difference in tone between both pictures. One is a romantic drama about two lovers struggling to reconnect after slowly growing apart from each other. The other is an unconventional thriller that poses two musicians opposite one another to build a steady sense of unease and tension between the two. The result is a severely nail-biting, teeth-grating, and heart-pounding experience because of it.
Again, going back to conflict. My college screenwriting professor once told us that conflict is what compels story, and character’s struggling with conflict compels their development in the story. I am reminded of this no better than when I watch Whiplash, and that’s just because Chazelle sets up conflict really well in the movie. In the film, Neiman is desperate to prove himself as a musician. He moves his bed out of his dorm room in the place of a drum set. When he goes to sleep, he listens to the music that he’s practicing in his ipod. When he knows he’s not playing fast enough, he pushes harder until his hand bleeds. When his hand bleeds, he puts a bandaid on and keeps playing. When his bandaid falls off, he presses his hand in ice water, turning the clean liquid into an ugly shade of red.
Yet, despite all of his passion and initiative, Fletcher continues to press him and push him harder not necessarily to make him a better musician, but just because it’s never good enough for him. The level of intensity Fletcher shows in the movie makes you wonder where all of this anger comes from. Did he have his own version of Fletcher when he was a music major in college?
Which brings me to the next point: the performances. Teller and Simmons give two of the best performances out of the year in their roles, fully inhabiting their characters to the point where we become entranced in full immersion. Teller, who before this has starred in a string of bad raunchy comedies (Project X, 21 and Over, That Awkard Moment), re-establishes himself as a finer actor here. He shows that he has more acting chops than he lets on and proves that he’s more than just a pretty face. Simmons is on a whole another level. He was so scary, intimidating and maddening as this arrogant, hard-headed music professor that he made wind ensemble feel like drill camp.
I can only name one moment I didn’t like in the film, and that is that the ending is far too abrupt. It’s a perfect film otherwise. Chazelle wrote and directed this film as a reaction to writer’s block, and while he pulled inspiration from being a drummer in high school, I think the film is universal as far as its language and messages go. We are both Neiman and Fletcher for the things that we are passionate about. We aspire to do great things, and we beat ourselves up when we don’t do those great things. We will push ourselves to and over the edge when we don’t measure up to our own expectations. But what’s the point of doing all of those great things if you’ve lost the joy in doing them? I quote my dad, who has always pushed me in a better way than Fletcher has: “You don’t have to be number one to be amazing.”
Post-script: In defense of my dad, some people might say he was going too hard on me, or that I didn’t deserve all of the strain that he would put me through. You would be wrong. I made third chair in the Texas All State band because he didn’t give up on me.