Whiplash review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
While jazz may be my preferred music choice for relaxation Whiplash is the exact opposite tone in its dramatization of a New York conservatory. The players are required to be perfect to the point where the bodies will breakdown. Fall short by even a hair and you’ll get a chair hurled at you by the perfectionist conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The lengths that these boys have to go through for the glory of playing is so bitterly harsh and intense that football practice seems almost tranquil in comparison.
When drumming prodigy Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is accepted as a first-year to the conservatory, he witnesses the vicious expectations first-hand. Good is not good enough. Great is not great enough. If you’re only just great, chairs fly. Neiman just cannot deliver on the tempo which angers and frustrates Fletcher to no end. Fletcher does not genuinely display any true concern for his students. In addition to being physically destructive around them, he shouts and insults with the sharpest tongue. Not a shred of empathy or compassion is shown as he fears pulling back will hold these students back. He will not settle for anything less than the greatest jazz musicians out of his players.
Since drumming has been Neiman’s dream, he puts his all into this position. He practices and practices until his hands are cracked open and bleeding. He dunks his fists in cold water, dons a band-aid and keeps practicing. Harder and harder he forces himself to keep a tempo that he ends up going through band-aid after band-aid, blood splattering all over the drums and symbols. Even worse, Neiman now has competition for the lead as drummer of the conservatory. Pissed off at all of the alternates for drumming, Fletcher holds them in the studio for a battle of the best. Switching out player after player and cussing up a storm hoping one of them will finally hit the right tempo, Fletcher is determined to push.
Only after Neiman forces himself to the brink of a major meltdown in body and mind does he achieve Fletcher’s desires. Fletcher shouts “faster!” as Neiman struggles to keep the tempo going higher and higher. “FASTER!” he booms after kicking drums around the studio in anger. Neiman eventually hits the sweet spot just long enough to be acceptable for Fletcher. Wounds open and blood on the set, Fletcher calls the band back in stating they can now start. And that’s just for rehearsals. When the orchestra finally starts to compete in theater hearings, things grow far more intense and reach a rather violent boiling point.
As if it wasn’t implied, J.K. Simmons absolutely dominates this film as the diabolical Fletcher. He’s always been the master of the fast wit and crafty wordplay, but here he is completely in your face with his ferocity. The man is a frightening force of determination in how he condescends with vulgar words that break down even the most hardened musicians. He’s also mercilessly deceptive in how he strings along students to get the results he is seeking. The few moments where he appears calm and collected give a brief glimpse into his own psyche of how he views the makings of true jazz legends. But peer too long and you’ll be snapped back into his web of eternal shame.
Though J.K. deserves every ounce of credit for his performance, Miles Teller keeps up with him in a role just as strong. His boiling agony and frustration is present in every scene where he pushes his body to the limit. You can see that sweaty look on his face of pain and relate to that push of going just a bit further - being just a bit better. The loneliness of his sacrifices take their toll as his family seems far more infatuated with his brother’s football career. He realizes he’s going down a dark path when he makes the tough call to breakup with his girlfriend simply because he believes he couldn’t make it work with his practicing. So much appreciation lost and given up turns him into a bitter musician that begins to make costly mistakes to his playing, his education and his health.
As mesmerizing as a well-tuned band, Whiplash builds and builds on its own intensity until it eventually reaches something wonderful and worthy of its bark. The camera bobs and weaves from many different angles capturing Teller’s fast hands of music and Simmons’ fury in pacing. Both of these actors throw everything they have at the screen, throats sore and veins pulsating. Just like the goals their characters are aiming for, the two actors achieve an amazing performance from all their efforts. They are not great; they’re perfect.