Whiplash is an intense exploration of the scars and sacrifices endured by those who strive for true greatness. It tells the story of an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who falls under the charismatic control of a demanding, at times cruelly sadistic music professor (J.K. Simmons). Thematically, there’s nothing new under the sun here, or under its dreary New York skies to be precise, and at first blush the film may seem like yet another variation of Rocky with boxing gloves traded for drumsticks. Yet Whiplash is executed with such artistry and conviction its drumhead-thin concept eventually expands to riveting proportions, much the way John Coltrane took the three note cycle of A Love Supreme and crafted a masterpiece.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle got his start in Hollywood writing low budget horror movies, and Whiplash retains a tension laced narrative structure that owes much to gory thrillers. But here the monsters and ax murderers are replaced by Simmons’ unpredictable and often violent fits of criticism. Those familiar with Simmons mainly through insurance commercials and goofy comedic characters will be shocked at the dark depths of madness he attains here. The film’s setting, Manhattan’s fictional Shaffer Conservatory, is rendered in dark wood and drifting dust motes, implying a musical mortuary built on the crushed hopes of young players who weren’t quite good enough.
Into this bloodied battlefield steps Teller’s Andrew, an earnest young man with a refreshing preference for Buddy Rich over Lars Ulrich. If Jazz is passé, no one has told Andrew and his peers, who approach the music’s demand for virtuosity with life-and-death seriousness. Lurking in the shadows is the manipulative Simmons; the ropey veins in his shaved head bulging at the slightest false intonation. To Simmons’ dictatorial ear, players who bring less than their A games are in for a merciless dressing down, executed with brutal efficiency. His public humiliations are structured much like drum solos, with vile imprecations and insults growing ever faster and louder until his poor victim bends and cracks like a cheap cymbal. When his acid tongue is turned on Andrew, which is often the case, the young drummer appears to impassively sit and take his medicine, but deep inside he is inflamed to achieve, if for no other reason than to prove this bastard wrong.
Along the way, Andrew will go to extraordinary lengths to reach his goal, including a frantic commute to a concert that contains the film’s most shocking scene. These antics should strain audiences’ credulity, but thanks to Whiplash’s intense atmosphere of desperation, Andrew’s maniacal focus seems logical and just. The sheer force of Simmons’ personality begins to infuse every aspect of Andrew’s life. Whether it’s a casual family dinner or a pizza date with his would-be girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), Andrew’s adoption of his teacher’s elitist attitudes leave a twisted path of anger and hurt. As Andrew jumps at a final chance for redemption, he will have to overcome Simmons’ deliberately planted obstacles, and find his own path to a musical catharsis than is nothing short of stunning..
However, it is the film’s middle act, which at times resembles a melodrama set to bebop, that serves to reveal the film’s deeper purpose. Through a short and derisive soliloquy from Simmons concerning “Starbucks Jazz,” Chazelle poses harsh but important questions about the future of great art in our distracted world and ultimately renders a sobering judgement. Whiplash is not just a story of conflict between student and mentor. It raises provocative questions about artistic motivations in a world of shrinking attention spans, and the willingness of artists, and society as a whole, to not only settle for mediocrity, but to celebrate it.