By Gary Murray
Starring J. K. Simmons, Miles Teller and Paul Reise
Written and directed by Damian Chazelle
Running time 106 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE
I played in band since I was in junior high and all the way into college. Over those years, the different groups were helmed by at least 12 different conductors, from year long instructors to one shot performances. Some were easy-going, laid-back types while others were as stern as Zeus throwing thunderbolts. For those who had the latter, Whiplash will bring back very specific sharp memories. It is easy to understand the dynamic between performer and conductor that the film presents.
Whiplash is about obsession, the drive to be the best. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drum student at a very prestigious academy of music in NYC. He is a 19 year-old kid and a bit of a loner with a dream to be a great jazz drummer. The first moment we see him is in the practice room, banging the skins as if he were Buddy Rich.
While practicing, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks in. He is a worldwide known player who is teaching the number one band at the school, the big band jazz orchestra that everyone wants to be a part of. It is the step to becoming a professional musician.
Fletcher is the sternest of stern taskmasters, pushing his players not only to be good but to be the best. Every one of these kids lives in abject fear of the man, averting their eyes when he walks into the room. He screams at vitriolic volume at a trombone player, breaking his spirit.
Andrew is brought into the band to be the page turner for the session drummer. When the session drummer messes up, Andrew gets his chance and impresses Fletcher. It becomes a see-saw match between the two players, battling for that chair
As Andrew works on the charts to the point of bleeding fingers, he becomes more and more obsessed with pleasing Fletcher. This puts pressure on his relationship with his father Jim (Paul Reiser) and his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). He must make a choice, a normal life or jazz drums.
Without giving anything away, the climax has as many twists and turns as a high-taut thriller with one character setting-up another. And the very ending is as exciting as any action sequence that has been put on a film this year. It is brilliantly edited and edge of your seat captivating.
J.K. Simmons gives the performance of his career with Fletcher. It is part passion, part psycho and all brilliant. He is a manipulator of young people, dancing that thin line between pushing musicians and destroying them. The big lesson that he has forgotten is that music should be fun.
Recently Miles Teller was in Two Night Stand and did not make much of an impression. Here, he finds the right blend of obsession and passion. Both are elements needed to present the character and he does the job beautifully. This is a role that should give him critical notices.
Another element that is award worthy is the soundtrack. It swings with technical big band jazz that swings to a heavy degree. It is a tribute to the majesty of this type of music.
Whiplash jumps to the top of my list for best film of 2014. It is a captivating study of how music becomes an obsession. It is one of the few films of this year that I cannot wait to see again. It made a major impression.
I enjoyed all my years behind the trumpet stand but I was never good enough to go any further. Basically, I didn’t have the talent, the ambition or the drive to be a professional trumpet player. But, a giant amount of my life-long best friends from school were ‘band geeks’ and they are still in my life. Such is the power of making music.