Perfection. A simple word, but a powerful one. It motivates us to be our best, but it balks when our best is not good enough. Men and women have died broken at its feet, and only a select few have ever approached it as an equal. To be a perfectionist is a pejorative in modern society more often than not, a sign of ego and of unnatural drive bordering on insanity. To expect perfection out of others is to push them to and beyond their limits, and such actions can have extreme consequences. In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, perfection is the ultimate goal of its two punishing and punished leads. Bandleader Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) will stop at nothing to extract perfection out of his conservatory’s studio jazz band, even if it means squeezing blood from a stone. He finds his match in this daredevil game of chicken in Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a precocious young first-year drummer with visions of Buddy Rich in his head. Andrew will not settle for any less than the best, and Fletcher will not allow for anything less than the best. It is an explosive pair around which to anchor a film, and makes for a tense, propulsive cinematic experience.
Story-wise, Whiplash is not in any particular hurry to break ground. Its beats are familiar, with the young upstart given a chance to thrive only to find his path to greatness impeded by a mentor with a penchant for physical and mental torture. The boy (only ever so slightly a man) sees this pressure as an obstacle to be overcome, and pushes himself even harder than he knew he could, but nothing is good enough, and his dedication to his craft pushes tension into the other relationships of his life. Damien Chazelle is aware that he is not reinventing the wheel with his plot. Instead, he chooses to use that structure to his advantage and build upon it with an extreme focus on character, and his gambit pays off in spades.
It helps, of course, to have a man with the immense talent of JK Simmons in the film’s splashiest role, just as much as it helps to have Miles Teller, a man who is brilliant as often as he is wasted in his young Hollywood career, as the locus of sympathy. Both men are astounding, and gifted with incredibly incisive dialogue with which to play. Simmons stalks across practice space and stage, clad in imposing black, every wrinkle of his hairless head arcing across the screen. He spits bile and lashes out like a viper at everything and everyone who would deign to displease him. His stature is immense and horrifyingly unpredictable; one can never guess just where will go next to eek out just a little more speed, just a little faster tempo. Teller straddles the line between cocksure and compliant, shrinking behind the drums as often as he cracks a relaxed smile when in the middle of a particularly stellar groove.
These men own Whiplash, to the point that no one or nothing else seems to matter beyond Fletcher, Andrew and the drums. The other players are faces in a crowd (only the other two drummers in conflict with Andrew get any sort of characterization). Paul Reiser’s father figure is vaguely defined, and Melissa Benoist’s love interest even less so. It is with these characters that the film is at its weakest, clearly less interested with them as people so much as plot, the reassuring and kind father who cannot push him to his dreams, the loving girlfriend who will just distract him from his goals. Chazelle blows by these moments, eager to get back into the lion’s den where Fletcher prowls. It is a detriment, but one that takes up as little screen time as possible to allow for the drums and the conflict to take the center stage they deserve.
The drumming itself is roundly excellent, and Teller acclimates himself to the sticks like a pro. There are times when it is likely he is not the one drumming, and others where his actions do not quite sync up with what is played, but it is the sort of moment only another drummer would notice, and it zips by in a flash. Teller is aided immensely by the editing; Chazelle and editor Tom Cross dazzle with quick cuts that come relentlessly but never overwhelm. They drive the tempo of the film to match the tempo of the songs, and the results are wonderful. Technically, Whiplash is accomplished and powerful, with impeccable use of color contrast, shot selection and camera movement. All is in service of the music, and music has rarely been photographed this well.
Whiplash is all about combustion. It is about the eruption of drum rolls, the speed of double time swing, the blur of sticks through the air, the chaotic vibration of cymbals. It is about blood and sweat and tears, but mostly just blood and sweat. It is about potential. Lost potential, found potential, squandered potential, and the trials of mastering and molding that potential into greatness. It is about sacrifice and the profound loneliness of a sound-proof practice room. It is about finding no connection with family and searching elsewhere to fill the void. It is a thesis of tension and a rumination on mentors and parenthood. But really, Whiplash is about two men and a set of drums, a war of wills and minds, a war of music. When it is good, it is great. When it is at its best, it finds the sort of perfection for which its two leads strive. It finds rapture in tension, bliss in horror. It finds music, beautifully cacophonous and uproarious jazz to mesmerize and inspire awe. Music is the great uniter, Whiplash understands that. But great music is not without its struggles, the surrender of its players. Damien Chazelle understands that too, and has treated the film world with a true gem.