Whiplash is a misleading name for this film. It conjures up deadly car chases and crashes and someone paralyzed for the rest of his life. But the actual film is a far cry from that kind of theme. Whiplash is a popular jazz piece written by Hank Levy, a composer/saxophonist who wrote for Stan Kenton’s orchestra in the 1950s and for Don Ellis in the ‘60s.
The film deals with Andy Neiman, an ambitious young drummer who sees himself as this generation’s Buddy Rich. So he is not terrifically surprised when he is accepted into what is considered the best music school in the country.
Ironically, Miles Teller, who plays Andy, is, in real life, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which is also considered one of the finest schools of its kind in this country.
No matter how rigorous the Tisch School is, however, it would certainly not tolerate a music professor like J.K. Simmons, who plays Terence Fletcher, an angry, violent, and abusive martinet. Fletcher leads the school band by pushing everyone to their limits and beyond, and he motivates them by hollering in their faces, cursing them, and even physically assaulting them.
Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed this film, claims that the story is factual—that everything that happens in the movie happened to him or one of his buddies when they played in their high school band.
Chazelle’s “villain”, Fletcher, expresses his belief that the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “good job!” It leads a player to believe he has done his best, he says, and to relax his efforts when he ought to be striving to do better.
Andy, who is young and impressionable, takes up the challenge and sets out to wow his teacher. He becomes more obsessed than ever with his drums and practices with them incessantly, until his hands are raw and bleeding.
Not being a drum aficionado, I can’t tell how good a drummer Miles Teller, who plays his own drums in this film, actually is. But I can vouch for the fact that he is a really fine actor.
As is J.K. Simmons, who is both intimidating and convincing, and curiously compelling. The two men play off each other exquisitely and both have been nominated for Golden Globes for their work.
Another fine, subdued performance is rendered by Paul Reiser, who has aged beautifully since his days as a befuddled husband in the wonderful TV sitcom Mad About You. In Whiplash he plays Andy’s father who, in a telling scene at the dinner table, disparages his son’s hero, Buddy Rich, for his dissolute life and death at 34. To which Andy replies indignantly that he would rather die at 34 and have people talking about him at the dinner table years afterwards than live to an old age and have nobody remember him.
When Whiplash premiered at the 2014 Sundance Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. If it isn’t overshadowed by some of the “bigger” entries, it might do well at this year’s Academy Awards as well, although that seems quite a stretch, given the caliber of this year’s competition. For what it’s worth, though, my money is on J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.
You can find Whiplash in limited release at select theaters in Los Angeles.
Photo: Miles Teller and his drums