But there are no physical weapons deployed in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s picture—only psychological warfare, focused on 19-year-old Andrew Neiman, a drum prodigy in his first semester at Manhattan’s Shaffer Conservatory. The darkness ceding, we first view our protagonist through a cavernous hallway as he adjusts the cymbals on his kit. As he resumes his rhythmic rolling, Chazelle’s camera begins rolling too, pushing in at eye level on Neiman as he sweats all over his drums.Even before the title Whiplash comes into focus in the center of the black screen, a quickening beat from a snare drum compels your attention, the single stroke roll building with almost military precision until it ends with an echo, as if a muted gunshot has gone off.
Sparsely illuminated by only a few overhead lights, we pass through the darkened doorway of his practice space as Neiman abruptly stops, staring toward us, stammering, “Uh, I’m sorry, sorry.”
“No, stay,” comes an older voice from the hallway; we’ve been seeing through the eyes of Terence Fletcher, top conductor in this fictionalized version of Juilliard, or our own New England Conservatory. From Neiman’s perspective, Fletcher quite literally emerges from darkness, striking fear into the young musician.
Menacingly portrayed by J.K. Simmons, Fletcher is a figure in black but for his shiny bald pate, which frames an icy stare and a perpetual smirk that could unleash either a smile or a snarl. Seductive and terrifying, Fletcher makes Vern Schillinger, the Detroit native’s character on HBO’s Oz, look like Mr. Holland.
“You know who I am?” Fletcher asks. “Yes, sir,” says the timid Neiman, played by 27-year-old Miles Teller, the exciting newcomer who stood his own opposite Nicole Kidman in his debut, 2010’s Rabbit Hole.
“Then why did you stop playing?”
Resuming, Neiman flails about as Fletcher stands unmoving—and apparently unmoved. Cutting the boy short, he continues, “I asked you why you stopped playing, and your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up monkey.” Taking off his blazer, Fletcher pushes Neiman through a series of punishing drills, beginning a duel that will last through the film’s final, electrifying frames.
Fletcher’s smelled blood, and he takes Neiman on as a new protege, one who adopts some of his instructor’s social skills. Before becoming the youngest member of the “greatest school jazz band in the world,” Neiman lacked the confidence to ask out the sweet girl (Glee’s Melissa Benoist) who works the concession stand at the repertory movie house he regularly visits with his dad (Paul Reiser). But under Fletcher’s tutelage, he’s willing to nip the blossoming romance in the bud. “I want to be one of the greats,” he tells her, coldly concluding, “This is why I think we shouldn’t be together.”
Later, over dinner with family, his uncle (Chris Mulkey) asks, “Do you have any friends, Andy?” Neiman responds with one of Fletcher’s oft-told stories: Charlie Parker didn’t know anyone until Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head, prompting Parker to buckle down and embark on his successful career as “Bird.”
“Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success,” observes Neiman’s dad, a failed writer whose wife left long ago.
“I’d rather die broke, drunk at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and have no one remember who I was,” replies a smug Neiman.
Neiman’s hubris is matched by Fletcher’s, whose Nietzschean methods and homophobic slurs sting, but Chazelle (the talent behind the
little-seen, charming 2009 musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) seems to imply that this is exactly what Neiman needs.
Neiman pushes himself so hard for his taskmaster—and his art—that his hands become raw and bloodied. Chazelle’s drama nearly doubles as a horror film, with Neiman a man driven to kill, his drum set the victim. “I push people beyond what’s expected of them,” Fletcher tells Neiman after the two have nearly destroyed one another. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’”
Chazelle appears to abide by this philosophy as well. A graduate of Harvard, the 29-year-old Providence native had been a jazz ensemble drummer throughout high school, but the pursuit was a source of constant dread. He transformed his experience into an award-winning short film in 2013—but that wasn’t good enough. Expanding that short into this feature, he won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards when it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The opening scene is basically replayed throughout, and like a great jazz riff, the film becomes a series of variations on a theme: the student failing to live up to his teacher’s standards, and his own. And like many a great jazz song—and there are many deployed here, from Hank Levy’s title track to Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” plus Justin Hurwitz’s original score and Tim Simonec’s big-band orchestrations—the movie is sometimes unwieldy. (Some second-act contrivances stand out.) But it builds to a hugely satisfying finish, aided by award-worthy contributions from nearly all involved; the richly lit and shadowed interiors captured by cinematographer Sharone Meir and Tom Cross’ fluid, up-tempo editing serve Chazelle’s demands spectacularly well.
“The truth is, Andrew, I never had a Charlie Parker,” Fletcher laments as the two share a rare quiet moment. But with Teller, and especially Simmons, Chazelle may have found two.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, C.J. Vana, Chris Mulkey, Suanne Spoke and Paul Reiser. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.