Before I saw this movie, someone said to me “Oh, it looks like a jazz version of “FAME”. A more mis-informed statement could not be ever spoken! A “Fame” remake this movie is not..If you love music, most especially jazz and have heard all those stories about the inner circle of the jazz greats..this is your movie.. With my basic knowledge of music and somewhat better at knowing those stories, I was able to follow along well. But “Whiplash” is a quite darkly, somewhat disturbing movie about 19 y/o “Andrew” played superbly here by Miles Teller, who eats, lives and breathes being a drummer, who wants so badly to be ‘remembered’ in this life as one of the world’s best he will do and put up with almost anything..again, almost.. His journey through what was at times, hard for me to watch as I’ve experienced people in my life like this, is what this movie is about..to be specific about a year of said journey at New York’s elite Conservatorium of Music, Shaffer Academy. And that is about the only thing that would hold a similarity to something like ‘Fame’ is both being held at a music academy schools.
This film begs the question of how far an artist should be pushed to achieve greatness. It’s a devastating portrait filled literally with blood, sweat and tears, leaving our hearts pounding as fast as the intense drumming. The music is quite extraordinary too. “Terence Fletcher” (J.K. Simmons) is the conservatorium’s god maker; we immediately sense how vital it is to Andrew that Fletcher notices him. What follows was for me the hard part of watching as It is the cruel, callous way Fletcher operates that gets under our skin as he offers some of the students words of encouragement, elicits some personal information only before using it against them with biting undercut. Simply said, he is a monster disguised as a teacher. Bullying and abuse come in many forms not just student to student, but teacher to student happens far more often than we realize and this is in large, what this movie is about. The humiliation, bullying, and violence towards all the students in his class are all part of the mix with chairs being hurled, faces slapped and students stripped down to size. Watching blood drip onto the drum kit from Andrew’s overtaxed fingers and hands, while close to exhaustion, is unsettling to say the least.
Just as it seems as though Andrew’s fortunes are looking up, when he is singled out by Fletcher and simultaneously gets a date with the pretty student he’s had a crush on for sometime “Nicole” (Melissa Benoist) who sells popcorn at the movie theatre he frequents, though neither opportunity turns out as expected. In the background is Andrew’s father “Jim” (Paul Reiser), a disillusioned, failed writer who quietly supports his son but clearly doesn’t understand musical aspirations or what drives him. Teller drums with the passion of a man literally possessed, the physicality of the performance is truly astounding. As for Simmons, his performance is breathtaking as we are captivated by every tiny expression on his distinctive features. The way he turns from violent abuser to a gentle man is truly quite impressive. Having been a fan of his since his turn in HBO’s ‘Oz’ ~ this is a role of a lifetime.
It occurred to me during one devastatingly harder scenes to watch that this movie can truly be as tense as any psychological thriller, complete with it’s own type of terrifying moments. But it also has the operatic highs that only music can bring. For instance that show-stopping sequence at the end of the film when the music wins, is the moment when our hearts can soar and think maybe..just maybe it was all worth it in the end as we applaud.
The performances by Teller and Simmons are the soul of this film and what truly make this movie what it is. I hope that they garner the attention they deserve come nomination time.
After seeing this film a second time last night at an Oscar screening with Dir: Damien Chazelle & J.K.Simmons doing a fun, lively Q & A afterwards.. I gotta up the grade to an A ~ as this film and most definitely it’s performances are Oscar worthy.
(See grading scale)