**** out of ****
Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, studying at a prestigious New York conservatory under the cruel tutelage of an obsessive band director, played by J.K. Simmons. Nothing about this man’s reputation prepares this student for what he will endure. Just imagine R. Lee Ermey’s boot camp section of Full Metal Jacket being an entire movie… but about music.
Where do I start? Should I begin by saying, that I’ll be surprised if I see a better film than Whiplash this year? Yes. I think I’ll start there. I was prepared for a well-written heavy movie with great performances about the intense pursuit of perfection. I was not prepared for how this movie’s craft brings it close to perfection by complementing its content through meticulous cinematography, rhythmical editing and astounding sound design.
It didn’t take long before I was enraptured in the tunnel vision perspective of its characters regarding their world of musical precision. The film could have been about any kind of art. Hell, it could have been a sports movie about a tough coach, but lord knows we’ve seen plenty of those. Jazz is this movie’s choice of flavor and once you’re watching, you have no choice but to respect it.
I don’t know if I’ve ever said so in a previous review, but as a lover of movies, I don’t regard any movie, no matter how great, as perfect. This movie probably has one or two narrative flaws and its interpretation of the history of jazz mastery is sure to be contested by professionals of the subject. But it lives and breathes the world it creates. It is a piece of cinema with a voice and moves with tremendous energy in unapologetic fearlessness.
In the casting of its protagonist, Teller brings more than his already proven acting talent. His apparent abilities as a drummer escalate his character’s authenticity so much. I’ve liked this kid since I saw him in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. He has a very believable screen presence that has benefitted every film it’s graced.
J.K. Simmons has transcended from his scenery-chewing side characters, like the manic J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks, to a man who eats every mean person he’s played for breakfast. If you’ve ever had a teacher who won your simultaneous fear and respect, Simmons embodies the nightmare version of that teacher.
The film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle got the film funded by shooting a short film of the same name with Simmons and presenting it at Sundance last year. The full-length version was shot in less than a month, which is shocking. This is a film with a commanding pace that guides us from the innocence of passion to the darkness of obsession without losing our empathy for how badly this kid desires validation from someone who will not grant it.
Whether or not humiliation-driven teaching (which borders on sadism in this film) is effective, is beside the point for me. This movie is about the masochism in accepting this style of education and all the dehumanizing sacrifice that comes with it.
By the end of this film, I dashed to the men’s room. I’d been holding it somewhere past the halfway point and couldn’t imagine the thought of breaking the experience the film provided for even one minute. While leaving the theater, I shook with the exhilaration that one may get after a theme park ride, but I tend to get when I’ve seen a movie that I am absolutely sure, is great.