I am a total snob when it comes to a film’s soundtrack. (I did an article based around such a topic for 2014 here.) If you even remotely have a good score with your film then I will personally pay attention. When you want to make a film about the music industry, or anyone as a performer in general, it makes it that much more difficult. Cause if you go that route you are completely screwed if your movie is not up to snuff. With Damien Chazelle’s new movie Whiplash that won’t certainly be an issue because he delivers us one of the most realistic and terrifying portrayals of how difficult it is to stand out as a musician.
The plot is straightforward enough as we follow Andrew (Miles Teller) trying to become a noteworthy jazz drummer by enrolling in a class lead by Conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). You would think this leads us to the typical story of a mentor trying desperately hard to push the student to his full potential and you’d be partially right. There is absolutely no hand holding or heartwarming determination though as, very quickly mind you, we find Fletcher to be one of the biggest bully’s in cinema history. It is refreshing to see this film not fall into the typical tropes with this sub-genre of films as it does not flinch on some truly cringeworthy scenes. The only thing that would make this film better if we just stick to that and on Andrew’s family issues rather than a romantic B-plot because it goes no where. That, and without the sake of spoiling, the climactic moment in this is so unrealistic it becomes cartoonish that was the best Chazelle could come up with.
As mentioned earlier it is quite apparent J.K. Simmons went full out as one of the most aggressive characters in film. It is no joke that every time he is on screen it is the most tense feeling you’ll get watching a film until his next scene. What I love about his character though is that, despite a monologue late in the film, he is essentially a petty man and has absolutely no remorse when bringing someone down. There is another kind of intensity when it comes to Miles Teller as well. He plays the depressed and awkward character well enough but the aggressive side of him comes out when he is on those drums. It is impressive enough that he can play those things himself but the way he breaks down into gobs of sweat and having bloody hands in almost every scene is literally giving it 110% and then some.
With these two amazing performances we cannot forget the music and Chazelle does more than enough to show his love for jazz. By using real musicians in the scenes, and again with Teller’s history as a drummer, he gives us some incredible pieces to listen too. Even if we are sometimes hearing the same melodies over and over again it never gets old on how catchy they are. That and Chazelle also wants to make these instruments, drums or otherwise, characters in themselves by giving us extreme close-ups of the musicians gearing up for the next number. Considering his past history as a failed musician in high school and with all but one of his features (including his upcoming La La Land) it is quite clear we have a great, new voice in the subject of music in film.
If you go into Whiplash thinking it is going to be a predictable, overcoming the odds tale then you will be disappointed. What we get instead is one of the most tense and sweaty features in quite some time. It is all thanks to J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller who gives us intense-filled performances for wildly different reasons. Damien Chazelle does not bullshit around and holds our hand when it comes to the cutthroat world of musicians. Whiplash is one of those films that perfectly shows how life is not always going to be fair and it is stronger for that reason.