Whiplash is a dramatic film written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious jazz drummer who studies at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, the most prestigious music school in the nation. Tormented by the sadistic/authoritarian Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)—the school’s studio band instructor—Andrew must invest all of his time into his craft in order to attain his dream: becoming the best jazz drummer of all time.
Locke was my surefire choice for the best film of the entire year for the better part of 2014, but after I first saw Whiplash, all of that changed radically. My all-time favorite film is Inglourious Basterds, which came out in 2009, but here is the list of my favorite movie from each of the years since Tarantino’s Nazi-killer was released: The King’s Speech (2010), Drive (2011), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and 12 Years A Slave (2013). In the past five years since the release of Inglourious Basterds, the single greatest movie I have seen is Whiplash. Wow, that is some serious adoration for a film, you might say. Yeah, it really is—but it is deserved. Not only is it far more superior to any other film released in the past five years, but also it does so much more with a smaller budget. My other favorite films that I mentioned (from 2010-2013) had budgets of at least $15 million, with an average budget of $18.25 million—Whiplash made its unforgettable mark on a budget of just $3 million. It is brilliantly written, daringly directed, and meticulously acted—these qualities cause Whiplash to soar to the top of cinema.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle has penned an inspired screenplay, and I mean “inspired” in every sense of the word. The basis for Chazelle’s story is his own personal experiences in the Princeton High School Studio Band. The man writes what he knows, and what he knows makes for some serious drama. His full-length screenplay is actually adapted from his own 15-page script for a short film of the same name. It did not feature Miles Teller, but it did feature J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. After the short film received critical acclaim at its screening at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, a group of producers signed on to turn it into a full-length picture. Fast forward one year to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival: Whiplash was screened and won rave reviews, eventually taking home the two biggest prizes for dramatic submissions (U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award). Chazelle’s journey with his story has been a long time coming, and the success has been rightfully tremendous. If it were not for Chazelle’s courage to do something with his original screenplay, we may never have gotten to see this amazing film. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he elaborated on his decision to pursue this story: “This was the most personal thing I’d ever written, and I put it in a drawer for a while [.] I was almost embarrassed to show it because it seemed like exposing a part of myself that I didn’t really want exposed.” Thankfully the 30-year-old filmmaker decided to uncover this fascinating story, and we as viewers are incredibly lucky for his decision.
I now move to discuss the unique aspects of the film’s music. Chazelle effectively utilizes the jazz-band compositions as an actual plot device. I am not usually a fan of pure jazz music, but the ways in which Chazelle employs the musical pieces made the film so much more enthralling, meaning I grew to enjoy the jazz tunes. The film centers on the jazz band, and Whiplash’s score is subsequently the actual pieces of music that the band plays during practices and shows. This plot device ensures the story still flows smoothly without seeming dull or boring, but it also prevents some radical, orchestral arrangement from playing in the background (thus taking away from the substance of the script). It is a subtle technique, but this story cannot be told any other way—Chazelle’s orchestrates (I am all about the puns this Oscar season) this marvelously.
The most significant assistance the film gets on its storied journey from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s short-film screening to Oscar night is the acting. Miles Teller (one of the best rising stars from the past few years—the guy really deserves more outward acclaim) is extraordinary and J.K. Simmons is even better!
As I mentioned in my post about the Best Supporting Actor category (where I gave Simmons the highest praise of any actor in any film from 2014), Terence Fletcher is an absolute bully, and I never would have thought J.K. Simmons would be the guy to play a role like this. Although he is great in his supporting roles in other films (such as Juno and Contraband), he has established himself as the funny Farmers Insurance commercial pitchman. Simmons, in his role in Whiplash as the despotic Fletcher, shocked me beyond measure. Fletcher is one of the most despicable assholes in film history, and Simmons (the usual jokester) executes this performance flawlessly. FLAWLESSLY! Two particular scenes delineate Fletcher’s ominous nature incredibly well. In one, he tests out his drummers on a particular portion of a musical piece. Within half-seconds of them beginning to play, he gives them a strict signal to “cut them off.” He again, time after time, tells them to begin, only to cut them off more severely. Fletcher is a staunch perfectionist, and this scene is amazingly telling regarding this precise characteristic. In another scene, he stops the band and points out that someone is playing incorrectly. He asks the band member to identify himself. Someone finally comes clean to his misstep: a trombone player. Fletcher then unleashes one of the most aggressive personal attacks that you will ever witness. The trombone player begins to weep, and Fletcher dismisses him from the band. Once the kid leaves the room, Fletcher blatantly points out that the mistake was not actually made by the band member that came clean—it was actually someone else, who Fletcher then tells to step it up. The fact that Fletcher knew the entire time which member of his band was truly behind the mistake reveals so much about him as a person: he has a gifted ear for his music, and he will stop at nothing to weed out any weak link in his band (e.g., the trombone player who admitted to a fault he really did not commit out of fear). Simmons displays this almost obsessive-compulsive feature of Fletcher’s nature with brutal honesty, and his raw, terrorizing performance is one for the ages.
Simmons is obviously garnering the most attention of anyone involved with Whiplash (and rightfully so), but Miles Teller additionally offered up a stellar performance as the object of Fletcher’s torment. Whiplash is the fifth movie of Teller’s that I have seen, and it is the third to make me believe that he is quite possibly the most talented star under the age of 30 in Hollywood. In Rabbit Hole (2010; an unbelievably depressing film), I saw Teller for the first time in a supporting role that stuck out as the premier highlight in a movie in which Nicole Kidman delivered one of the most amazing performances of her career. He was also emotionally captivating as Sutter Keely in The Spectacular Now (2013), and it was this performance that made me believe in Teller as a dramatic actor—his portrayal of Andrew in Whiplash convinced me—as to his place amongst the great rising stars in the industry—beyond a reasonable doubt. The phrase “blood, sweat, and tears” is manifested to its truest meaning via Teller’s performance, and the “blood” portion plays a central role in the film. Andrew sweats profusely as he practices and plays due to the intense musical compositions—so what? He pours tears over the hardships that come his way in his quest for greatness—again, what of it? As he performs on the drums for long periods of time in the most overwhelming fashion, his hands begin to bleed uncontrollably, resulting in his drum and drumsticks to be covered in a hazy red—this is where the true nature of Andrew is expounded upon the greatest as he literally gives part of his life for his craft. Teller’s performance in these scenes is nothing short of spellbinding.
This is by far the longest I have ever written in a single post about a film, but I faithfully believe in every single word. Whiplash is a modern masterpiece. When it comes out on DVD/Blu-ray just two days after the Oscars, it will be expeditiously added to my personal film collection. It is a movie that I will not soon forget—Damien Chazelle, J.K Simmons, and Miles Teller have made a lasting imprint on my mind with this beautiful work of cinema. It is a character study of two men, one of which is not even the main character (i.e., someone we do not spend each frame with: Fletcher), and the story of the clash between these two jazz heavyweights is mesmerizing. In a year with many amazing movies, Whiplash stood apart—it is the best! Whiplash is rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
Whiplash trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo
Academy Award nominations for Whiplash:
Best Picture (Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, and David Lancaster, producers)
Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons)
Best Film Editing (Tom Cross)
Best Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, and Thomas Curley)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Damien Chazelle)
Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2014:
- Starred Up
- The Theory of Everything
- Blue Ruin
- American Sniper
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Gone Girl
- The Lego Movie