Greatness is achieved through sacrifice and drive. It comes from the ability to push the body and mind further than anticipated. It is not something that is inherent in everyone. While the world is filled with talented people, only a few have what it takes to truly be great. Identifying who those select few are…well that is where things get difficult.
Musician Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) has spent the better part of his teaching career at a prestigious music academy in search of greatness. He firmly believes that “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job.'” In his cold and pointed eyes, the world is stifling true talent by consistently encouraging mediocrity.
Fletcher’s exclusive jazz band is coveted by all the students as only the cream of the crop get in, and even then it is tough to stay in. Fletcher demands perfection in every note that is played. He has no qualms about hurling objects at his students if their tempo is slightly off. He oversees his room like a lion ready to verbally pounce on the young fawns who sit shaking before him. The most recent lamb pulled into his slaughterhouse is first year drumming student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller).
Neyman’s main goal in life is to be one of the most famous drummers in the world. A loner, Neyman is an awkward teenager whose social life consists of going to the movies with his father (Paul Reiser) every Friday night. He cannot even ask out the girl at the theatre concession stand, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), without making a fool of himself. When Fletcher notices Neyman practicing the drums one day, he takes an immediate interest in the young lad. Being recruited into Fletcher’s band, Neyman believes that this is the stepping stone he needs to cement his future musical career. What he does not anticipate though is how mentally and physically taxing Fletcher’s demands for perfection will be.
Coming off winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Whiplash rode into TIFF on a wave of high expectations. Fortunately for director Damien Chazelle, whose life the semi-autobiographical story was based on, the film did not disappoint. The audience was in complete rapture with the volatile surrogate father-son dynamics on display in the film.
The performances in Whiplash are simply astounding. Teller is wonderful as the misguided drummer whose tunnel vision plays a big role in the abuse he endures in Fletcher’s presence. The scene where Neyman and Nicole have a heart-to-heart carries the same painful, but wonderful, awkwardness as a similar scene in The Social Network. Teller’s work in the film is even more riveting when factoring in that he has to play against a blisteringly sensational performance from J.K. Simmons.
Easily one of the most captivating, and complex, villains to grace the big screen in quite a while, Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is a force of nature. He spews verbal insults with the fury of a passing tornado, but can still turn on his charismatic charm at the drop of a hat. Simmons has been one of the great character actors for several years, but this is the film that will finally make him a household name. His performance simply cannot be praised enough. He is just that good.
With Simmons and Teller firing on all cylinders, Damien Chazelle is able to construct a crowd-pleaser with true depth and emotion. Like a wonderful symphony, his film flows at a nice melodic pace, only slowing down slightly – the uneven “summer” section – before building to an exhilarating crescendo…and what a finale it is. While it would be unfair to Chazelle to spoil the ending, we will just say that he absolutely crushes it! Every drop of sweat and blood that rise off of Neyman’s symbols, every skilled cut to a note or different instrument, every subtle eye gesture and smirk reverberates off the screen.
By the end of the film, Chazelle has not only guided the audience through this dark abusive rabbit hole, but leaves them wanting to go back in all over again. A thrilling study of mental abuse in relation to striving for excellence; Whiplash is a sensational film.