Watching J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash is an exhausting proposition, as both are gripping and intense inside their characters. Viewers of the Damien Chazelle written and directed film will, at times, be on the edge of their seat as the story unfolds. This splendidly consuming character study of not just musicians but the world of professional music and those who inhabit it is, by the time the final credits roll, tiring. The urge to slump forward in the theater seat limp with exhaustion is almost overwhelming, which is also as good a descriptive word as any to refer to this film.
Chazelle made Whiplash as a short film first, in 2013 and it also starred J.K. Simmons, although in that version of the feature film his character’s name was just “Band Teacher.” In this feature film version of the first film, Simmons is Terrence Fletcher, legendary amongst the students of the harsh music conservatory as he his terrifying. The man is an instructor who causes his musically gifted students to flinch and quiver when they come under his vicious scrutiny.
Miles Teller is Andrew Neyman, a determined and focused young man who wants to be the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker of the drums. Andrew practices constantly and when he is not, he watches films with his high school teacher father Jim who raised the boy on his own after Andrew’s mother left when he was a youngster or listens to Buddy Rich riffs. The socially awkward teen tentatively tries to begin dating but changes his mind pretty quickly when he feels he is losing focus.
Whiplash is almost painful to watch in places. The pressure at the music conservatory is excruciating in its intensity. Simmons’ character of Fletcher comes across as a clever bully, who takes the time to learn his victim’s weaknesses and then uses the knowledge to decimate his target. Teller is totally convincing as the young musician who is aiming for perfection, just as his teacher is.
The film shows the harsh reality behind the pursuit of the perfect performance, the creation of a master, a genius and the price one must pay to become the best. Chazelle wants the audience to put aside any notion that being a professional musician is fun or even enjoyable. This is hard, grueling work and when these two men, who are at heart the same, meet and it transpires that both are searching for perfection, the mix is a heady and painful one, Whiplash shows J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in their intensely gripping interactions.
This film shows that in some instances cruelty is meant to be refining and those who cannot rise to the occasion are destroyed, as Andrew almost is. Chazelle gives the audience an experience which is both mesmerizing and disturbing. The director manages to get the audience completely invested in characters that are not in the least likeable, although Andrew comes close. This young man has a dream and he is willing to believe anything in order to reach it.
Whiplash is intensely gripping and by the time the film finishes and J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller have finished sparring for what turns out to be one heck of a surprise finish the viewer is wrung out, exhausted by the events on the screen. Whiplash opens on November 14. Prepare to be overwhelmed by this masterpiece of character development and the pursuit of perfection. One word can be used to describe this movie and the performances in it: Oscar.
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square Theater 18