If you want to be the best, you have to expend enormous amounts of time and energy to develop the talents God gave you. The problem is, everyone has a limit and only those who are willing to go beyond those limits can rise above everyone else clawing to the top of the proverbial heap and become great. Usually, the ones who find true greatness have someone (whether a mentor, a friend or a colleague) who sees their potential and nurtures their talent by pushing them to fight the odds and exceed beyond what they believe they can do. But where do you draw the very fine line between pushing someone beyond their limits and killing them from the inside out? When developing your talent becomes less about the love of working on your craft and more about the fear of failing, it only leads to heavy amounts of stress and anxiety that goes well beyond what the mind and body can take. That is the quandary writer/director Damien Chazelle explores in his beautifully executed film, Whiplash.
There’s always a moment in every actor’s career where he or she goes from being “that guy in that movie” to a household name, and for Miles Teller, Whiplash is that movie. Teller has appeared in (and has been the best part of) several films over the last few years, but up until now, he’s simply been a recognizable face in a sea of struggling actors. As Andrew, a drumming prodigy with no musical background whose life (and future) depends on making a name for himself, art imitates life as Teller pounds his way into the stratosphere of superb performances, proving he’s more than ready to become one of the all-time greats.
Andrew conveys a great deal of dedication, will and perseverance in his pursuit of greatness, occasionally to the detriment of his life. Focusing so much on developing his ability, Andrew misses a lot of what makes life enjoyable, including friendships and love. His best friend (for lack of a better word) is his father (a nearly unrecognizable Paul Reiser), and when he does find the courage to ask the cute girl behind the concession stand (Melissa Benoist) out on a date, he kills the relationship because he fears her involvement in his life will only harm his ability to become the greatest drummer of all time. What he doesn’t understand is that by disavowing all of life’s other pleasures, and holding onto such a narrow view of what he wants out of life, is what will actually hurt him in the long run.
Encouraging this (veiled) destructive behavior is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the illustrious professor of music at a prestigious academy who not only has a terrific ear for music and composition, but is a master of intimidation. When no one speaks up for being out of tune during a practice session, Fletcher calls out one of the students, yelling at them for not knowing whether he was or not. When the student finally answers, he’s kicked out of the orchestra for not knowing the difference. He uses the same tactic on Andrew when he tries to get him to stay on beat. Fletcher won’t ease up, even going so far as to slap him, until Andrew understands the difference between being too fast and being too slow.
Fletcher is a rock star at the academy. Every students wish is to be a part of his orchestra because they know if he approves of them, they will most likely have a long, fruitful career. His appreciation of talent, though, is quite fickle; a student has only himself to blame if they are eventually replaced by someone hungrier for excellence than they are. On the flip side, becoming part of Fletcher’s inner circle comes with a price, one that is more than likely paid literally in sweat, blood and tears. In one mesmerizing sequence, Fletcher is looking for a drummer that can match Fletcher’s impossibly fast tempo. The session turns into a merry-go-round marathon between Andrew and two rivals: Carl (Nate Lang), the group’s original core drummer, and Ryan (Austin Stowell), a drummer Fletcher brought in as nothing more than a fear tactic to help Andrew earn his spot behind the drum kit. The three of them spend hours trying to show their commitment, leaving behind layers of blood and sweat before Andrew finally prevails and allows practice for the rest of the orchestra (for whom had to wait until one of them got it right) to finally begin.
Known more for his comedic (and in some cases, his dramedy) turns than pure dramatic performances, it was a little odd at first to watch Simmons be so aggressively controlling (bordering on sadistic) — and not in a sly, over-the-top J. Jonah Jameson kind of way, but in a realistic portrait of someone who believes winning is more powerful to the soul than doing what you love for the love of what you do. At one point he says the two worst words in the English language are “good job,” mostly because it has become so meaningless as to promote laziness. When someone says those words, they simply mean you’ve given up, and what Fletcher wants more than anything is to find that one person he can mold and shape into an unforgettable legacy.
But once again the question arises — how much is too much? When nothing else matters but winning? When the high anxiety of failing (or losing) actually causes that person to fail? When pursuing your goal hurts others just as much as yourself? In a mad pursuit to perform in one competition, Andrew is involved in a serious car accident, but his determination to prove himself has been so ingrained in him by the fear of losing his future, that he leaves the scene of the accident to get to the theater and perform, only to end up failing and ultimately hurting the orchestra’s chances of winning. Would he have been better off taking a step back and for that one moment conceded his pride for health, or is it just one more lesson that helps him understand how much he needs to push himself to find his importance?
Everything about this film matches the message it’s putting out, beginning with the performances. Teller and Simmons stand toe-to-toe with each other, neither one backing down from the other in any way. In fact, the two of them continually help the other raise their games throughout the film, all the way up to the superb finale (executed with such finesse in everything from the performances to the lighting and the direction) that every word, every scene, every act and every question has been leading up to — that moment when we find out what true greatness looks like. It’s one of the best final ten minutes of any movie this year, if not the best.
But a movie like this wouldn’t be complete without great music, and sprinkled throughout are some terrific jazz pieces, including the title composition (the song that eventually wins Andrew his role in the core group… after he accidentally loses Carl’s sheet music during a competition, an incident I’m not convinced was an accident at all, but which the movie never addresses, leaving it up to the audience to decide) and the song that causes so much pain and blood to be spilled. Teller went above and beyond to be trained in such elegance and power behind the drums that it’s hard to believe there was any learning curve to be had.
In a film that asks the question of how far someone should go to create a masterpiece, it delivers in every respect that a film should deliver on, and the emotional power that goes along with the power of determination, the power of love and the power of respect is one that could very well help Whiplash top the list for best movie of the year.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I and The Imitation Game. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.