Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash, which has been hyped as “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard”, is a raging two-hander about a gifted drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller). Enrolled at an elite Manhattan music school and determined to be not just proficient or admired but Buddy Rich-great, Andrew is a Bunsen burner. We can see from the get-go he’s going to be increasingly possessed and manic and single-minded about the skins. (All great musicians are like this to varying degrees.) On top of which he really doesn’t want to be like his kindly, failed-writer dad (Paul Reiser), and he can’t find peace with a pretty girl (Melissa Benoist) because she isn’t as consumed as he is — too uncertain and unexceptional.
Miles Teller in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which screened last night at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
That’s combustible enough, but Chazelle turns it up with the villain/angel of the piece — a snarling, egg-bald, half-mad music instructor named Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). This guy is definitely not sane and yet he knows what it takes to be great. Andrew recognizes this kindred (if dominating) spirit and wham…we’re off to the races. You know these guys are going to butt heads, and that a lot of emotional-psychological blood will be spilt (along with the actual stuff). This is the super-demanding realm of classic jazz. Everyone listening to Rich and Charlie Parker and other legends of that ilk. Playing the hell out of “Whiplash” and “Cherokee” and dreading Fletcher’s wrath. No pikers, whiners or jerkoffs.
Fletcher is a music-academy variation of F. Lee Ermey‘s Sgt. Hartman in FMJ and Lou Gossett Jr.‘s Sgt. Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman — a foam-at-the-mouth Yoda, a perfectionist, a control freak, a rage junkie and torrential hurricane, motherfucker. Terence is the polar opposite of Reiser — his method is to basically goad and berate and terrorize. Give me 110%, asshole, or I will fuck you like a pig. On second thought get the fuck out of my class. The idea is to challenge and push gifted students past their breaking point, and perhaps (if they’re talented enough) to a level of performance that’s higher than they know they’re capable of.
Andrew eventually gets there but he has to open up his veins and scream and spill blood and sweat all over his drums to do it. He has to please Fletcher, who is never pleased. He has to worship Fletcher, get angry and then angrier at Fletcher, plead with Fletcher, tackle and punch Fletcher, fuck Fletcher up and finally tell Fletcher to go fuck himself as he takes flight on his own.
All father-son conflict films require a big standoff finale. The son has to not only defy the dad but exceed his expectations. He has to look his instructor in the eye and say something along the lines of “sit the fuck down, bitch…I got this.” The big Whiplash finale happens, naturally, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and I am telling you right now that the sense of realism that Chazelle has carefully and methodically injected into Whiplash goes right out the window when the final performance happens. The drumming is wowser but give me a break.
Whiplash is an angry, crackling, highly charged thing — the 28 year-old Chazelle’s second feature. It’s a little show-offy but enjoyably so. (All young filmmakers are out to show their plumage.) It feels like young Scorsese before Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More — hungry, ambitious, well disciplined, superbly cut. Chazelle understands that good filmmaking means showing command and locking into in the groove — tempo, timing, spirit, pulse. It’s a brash but out-there film that’s necessarily mad and manic. Definitely an audacious, live-wire debut.
Teller bothered me in The Spectacular Now (I just don’t like movies about drunks) but he’s much, much better here. His Andrew is vulnerable, anguished, charismatic, thoughtful. A recognizably human sort of guy as far as musicians go. The notes say Teller did a lot of his own drumming. “Out of all the instruments I’ve played — I play like guitar, piano, saxophone — drums are probably the ones I’m most natural at,” he said late last year. “[Making Whiplash] was the first time I’ve ever gotten drum lessons. I just got a drum set one year for Christmas, and I used to play in bands.”
Simmons is a total fucking madman in this thing. He’s a sneering motor-mouth reptile with a long flicking tongue. He’s probably going to win an acting award from the audience or the Sundance Jury — Fletcher is one of those roles and Simmons (who knows all about piss and vinegar) is more than up to the challenge. Honestly? At the two-thirds mark I began to feel that Fletcher is a bit much — anyone with this much rage couldn’t possibly hold a teaching position for more than a semester or two. He’s too over the top. But Simmons is definitely a kick.
I know a little something about drumming, having been a genuinely mediocre (should I just come out with it and use the word “shitty”?) drummer with a ’70s band alternately known as The Sludge Brothers, Dog Breath and The Golden Rockets. I was pathetic. Ringo Starr and Doug Clifford were way above my level of expertise. I used to weep about not being as good as Charlie Watts. But I came away with genuine respect for those who were genuinely good. There’s a weird mystical precision about drumming and tempo — it’s very mathematical. There’s a moment when Fletcher asks Andrew if he’s a lagger or a hurrier — if he has a tendency to be just a little bit behind the tempo or ahead of it. That’s dead-on. I know — I used to be a lagger.
I also know this: there’s no point in drumming so hard that your hands bleed like Teller’s hands do in Whiplash. Callouses, rubbed raw, pain, bandages…okay. But nobody bleeds, for Chrissake.
Andrew just wants to wail like a champ, and this is how almost all great musicians are. They live in their heads, floating around, absent-minded, focused on their music to the exclusion of everything else including taking out the garbage. Young Brian Wilson became a self-taught pianist in Hawthorne by playing every day like a crazy man, and ignoring the usual high-school stuff. Jimi Hendrix never put his guitar down. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You know the punchline.