“Whiplash” begins with the steady tap-tap-tap of a drumstick on a snare and ends, one hour and 45 minutes later, with an apocalypse of percussion. In between, a young star comes of age, a much-loved character actor grabs the gold ring, and an up-and-coming filmmaker stakes his claim for greatness. I first saw the film in January at the Sundance Film Festival — maybe the only time I’ve seen an audience explode in cheers when a movie ended — and recently revisited it with trepidation. Was it that good?
Oh, yes. It’s that good.
“Whiplash” tells the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a young jazz drumming student at the tony (and fictional) Shaffer Conservatory in Manhattan. He worships Buddy Rich, which already tells us a lot: Rich, a hyper-aggressive showboat who was legendarily nasty to the musicians in his bands, may be hated by jazz purists but it makes sense he’d be worshipped by an ambitious kid with a sweet, failed nudnik of a dad (Paul Reiser).
It also makes Andrew susceptible to the charms of the school’s prince of darkness, the professor who leads Shaffer’s crack jazz orchestra. Terence Fletcher could be the role J.K. Simmons (“Juno,” “Oz”) has been waiting for his entire career: it allows this actor to concentrate his unique manner — a brusqueness poised precisely between affability and threat — to near-Satanic levels. Fletcher dresses in aging-hipster black, has a shaved head and pitiless eyes. When he gazes out at his quaking students, he could be a T. Rex sizing up his prey.
At Sundance, “Whiplash” quickly picked up the nickname “Full Metal Juilliard” on the basis of scenes in which Andrew, plucked from a late-night practice session to be the orchestra’s drummer, is raked over the coals by his new mentor. Horrifying as they are, these sequences are dazzling exercises in total humiliation. Fletcher throws chairs, slaps students, screams insults about their parentage and sexual proclivities — and then cues them into sublimely tight renditions of bop classics (like Hank Levy’s title tune) using a tiny twitch of his hand. When he stops the band and tells a player “That’s not my tempo,” it’s the judgment of an Old Testament God.
Simmons makes the most of this mesmerizingly awful man, but he’s been given a lot to work with. “Whiplash” is the second film by the young Harvard graduate Damian Chazelle, whose 2009 debut — a gossamer Boston-set romance called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” — was hardly preparation for the follow-up. Where does a filmmaker get this kind of confidence? Fletcher’s invective approaches operatic levels at times, but better than the dialogue is the way the movie looks, sounds, feels. Shaffer is envisioned as a church of music, with rehearsal rooms paneled in dark oak and burnished amber lighting. The brilliant, electric editing by Tom Cross cuts sometimes on the beat, sometimes against it, sometimes skittering along the rhythm of whatever’s being played. This isn’t show-off stuff, like the chop-a-thons in films like “Chicago.” The characters breathe music, and so does “Whiplash.”
Another question: Why does Andrew put up with Fletcher’s abuse? Does he buy into the teacher’s assertion that nice is the enemy of art, that “good job” is the worst thing you can say to a musician? Chazelle doesn’t, I’m guessing, but he’s fascinated by those who do, and he structures this movie like a pit fight. “Whiplash” sees the world through its obsessive young hero’s eyes as he drums his hands bloody into the night to be worthy of Fletcher’s “tempo.” If the essence of jazz is collaboration, not competition, then this isn’t a jazz movie at all — it’s an essay on power. Other students are rivals or non-entities; there’s a girl, Melissa Benoist’s Nicole, but even she’s jettisoned as a distraction. A Sunday dinner scene with cousins — preening jocks who can’t understand this weirdo in their midst — devolves into a hilarious display of Andrew’s arrogance, possibly even warranted. The kid doesn’t just want to earn Fletcher’s approval. On some level, he wants to be him.
Miles Teller has been the best thing, or close to it, in a number of movies up to now — “Rabbit Hole,” “Footloose,” “The Spectacular Now” — but here he battles to own the movie. “Whiplash” was adapted from an earlier short by Chazelle and its one flaw is a slackening of energy toward the end of the second act, when Andrew is briefly removed from Fletcher’s orbit. You can feel the padding, and yet Teller almost turns the deadening of his character’s soul into a drama of its own. Without something to hit — or hit at — Andrew’s just another yutz from the suburbs, and it hollows him out.
“Whiplash” then comes charging back for a showdown in which Andrew finally gets a chance to settle the score at the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall. At least, I think that’s where it is; there’s the faint possibility that the movie’s climax plays out entirely in the hero’s head. Chazelle and his collaborators tighten their grip; the sequence is a bravura display of camerawork, editing, sound recording, and acting in which the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher gets defined, then redefined, then redefined again. It goes on far too long, yet you want it to go on forever. And it ends with a look of understanding between the two men that may chill your bones.
“Whiplash” takes us to the edge of creative expression and then it sails right off, into the place where the monsters are.
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