While the film “Whiplash” is about drumming and jazz music, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s intense focus on the physical demands of training and competition essentially transforms art into athletics. The story follows Miles Teller’s Andrew as he goes through the music conservatory training process, both honing his craft and advancing through the studio ranks. Andrew aims for nothing short of becoming one of the all-time great drummers, and the quest quite literally claims blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Chazelle’s filmmaking captures the coexisting violence and agility of drumming with the same sort of madcap, fast-paced artistry. “Whiplash” probably has the average shot length of a Marvel film, although these fast and furious edits are actually deployed to induce a physiological effect. Chazelle conducts a cinematic symphony in his quick cutting of extreme close-up shots, cerebrally conveying just how many moving parts have to synchronize in order to create stirring music.
“Whiplash” is hardly a concert film, however, and much of the momentum of these extended bravura sequences comes from attention to and investment in the story and characters. Chazelle’s script keeps an even keel even with its fairly rapid succession of events, largely stemming from its streamlined attention on Andrew’s quest for musical brilliance. (Seriously, any more obsessed and he might turn into a swan.) Even his romantic interest, which seems like a pleasant diversion when first introduced into the film, serves its purpose in advancing Andrew’s plot arc.
Where the story starts to get really interesting, though, is when J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher enters the mix. He serves as instructor and conductor at Shaffer Conservatory but is probably more akin to a coach. Imagine the most stern, demanding teacher who has ever pushed you to take your talents further … and then notch up the profanity and sadism while throwing ethical caution to the wind. Simmons embodies the smugly self-assured exactitude of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” in the imposing figure of R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket.” In other words, he is absolutely terrifying.
Yet as scary as Fletcher’s drilling techniques are, there is clearly a method to his madness. Nowhere in Chazelle’s characterization or Simmons’ performance does stereotype steer him into purposeless histrionics. Even though his approach can be cruel, Fletcher does want to help his art by unlocking the potential inside the next great jazz drummer; he does not think participation medals and encouraging pats on the back will do the trick. “Whiplash” neither discredits nor vindicates his strategies. Chazelle simply provides a fascinating figure inside an equally enthralling film, daring all those who approach it to think critically and feel viscerally. A- /