How is greatness made? Hard work and dedication, sure, but can truly great figures of history get there through normal circumstances or is there a deeper pain that must be confronted and overcome? Is it worth pushing these figures away from the possibility of a normal life in order to serve a higher calling? The new music-based film Whiplash, one of this year’s very best, deals with these concepts with brutal honesty and feverish intensity. It sometimes feels like a companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which also dealt with the darker side of ambition and the potential perils of perfectionism.
Miles Teller, one of the best young actors working today, plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman jazz drummer who is just starting out at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. After drumming in a practice room late one evening, he is discovered by the conductor of the school’s lead jazz band Terence Fletcher, played with merciless tenacity by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher sees potential in Andrew and invites him to play in his group but after a verbally abusive confrontation with Andrew on his first sit-in, it’s clear that Fletcher’s teaching tactics will push him further than he’s gone before.
It’s hard to overstate just how good Teller and Simmons are here. Both do so much to defy the typical teacher-student role conventions seen in lesser films and instead create believable characters that are morally complex and psychologically compelling throughout. Fletcher is generally monstrous and Andrew is often sympathetic, if by necessity, but each character is given a fair trial and first-time director Damien Chazelle doesn’t give us an easy sense on which character is right or wrong in what they’re doing. He gives us the opportunity of perspective and allows us to make up our own minds; a refreshing concept.
Another refreshing aspect of this movie is the way it doesn’t bind itself to traditional Hollywood storytelling methods. There are subplots involving Andrew’s caring father and also his temporary girlfriend that serve the story purposefully but the majority of the run time is tightly focused on the relationship between these two complicated characters. It also doesn’t shy away from mental and physical anguish associated with being the best in a highly competitive field. There are no convenient montages of steady progression; we see all of the tears, sweat and yes, blood, along the way.
Chazelle uses these tortuous settings to create a relentlessly tense and downright dangerous atmosphere that had me pinned down from beginning to end. There’s an anxious, propulsive energy to Whiplash that gives it a bracingly unpredictable quality, especially leading up to and including the film’s spellbinding climax which further showcases Teller’s amazing abilities behind the drum set. Frankly, I’ve never seen a movie that was this singularly focused on music performance and as a musician, I was thrilled and delighted to find a film that dealt with the subject passionately and intelligently.