My old college roommate is a drummer. He had this plastic kit, so as not to bother hall mates, and he loved that thing. He’s been banging on drums since he was 15, practicing for hours on end. He let me in on the fact that, with enough repetition, by continuously slamming wooden sticks to metal and toms and snares, you can get a nasty callus. In fact, you can let out plenty of blood, painfully. But you play through until you get that sound right. His hands aren’t totally gnarly, but they’re weathered. Mastery of and commitment to any instrument will do that to your hands, really. Coltrane would play until his hands bled. That’s the challenge: Can you play through the pain until you reach perfection?
Music may be art, but it’s also a science, and even an endurance test.
Andrew (Miles Teller, in a total physical, emotional performance) is about to learn drums the hard way. A first-year drumming student at a prestigious music conservatory, he sweats on, tears at, and bleeds all over his drum kit. Deep down, he’s certain he’s got a shot at being the next Buddy Rich. And that’s the unbelievable dream that drives Whiplash’s musical mania.
Is this the cost of greatness? What’s Andrew going to have to jettison? What does he have to do to prove himself to himself? When can he say he’s a real jazz musician? The movie is a fierce thriller, tighter than a snare, as Andrew struggles with his own psyche and ambitions. Like any 19-year-old, his reach exceeds his grasp. He’s fed equal amounts of hope and disdain from Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a full-on bastard), a former jazz lothario now conducting a house band at Andrew’s conservatory. Fletcher is ridiculously foul, eager to find a true talent. He espouses jazz as a genre of practice and discipline, creating purity (more on that in a minute). Fletcher lures Andrew in, calls the kid Buddy Rich reincarnate. But the niceties stop right after that compliment.
Andrew, speed up. Andrew, slow down. Andrew, you’re competing against two other kids for that spot. Andrew, watch out for this chair that’s about to connect with your head. Andrew, you’re bleeding to speed-drum? Tough shit. It’s a nightmare. Fletcher pushes, pulls, teases, and mentally mangles an anxious young kid with promise, but no deep goals. Is Fletcher a failed musician pushing his failures on students? Is Andrew too stupid to see the bigger picture? Whiplash rumbles, building into a terrifying and terrific mind game.
Teller is the main-stage act here. Simmons puts in a throaty, bipolar performance as the manipulative professor, and his voice carries throughout the film (even when he spits total crap), but Teller’s Andrew is a thing of beauty. His education takes on Quixotic qualities as he learns painful lessons — trials by fire that leave him aching. Teller (who’s apparently been drumming since his teens and looks legitimate) delivers an impressive evolution of mind and body. He nails the pains of drumming, like profuse bodily fluids, rigid neckwork, and a hunched back.
This is a strong American indie. It’s a loud, edgy, emotional, and ultimately thrilling riff from eager new voices. Damien Chazelle has a daringly static take on music and its imagery, with impressive control of his editing, dialogue, and actors. He’s a new voice worth following up on.
But Whiplash has one important problem.
*puts on pretentious jazz fedora*
Herm, Whiplash sort of simplifies the spirit of jazz to “practice practice practice,” and well, its taste is questionable. Look, Andrew wants to be the next Buddy Rich? Fine. Rich is often easily vaunted as the “the world’s greatest dummer,” but he’s just one kit, one popular style of jazz music: loud and fast. This is a guy best known for challenging Animal on The Muppet Show.
Where are Andrew’s Tony Williams posters? Andrew’s in music school and interested in jazz, yet his understanding of music and his future is so myopic. Would it kill him to listen to some Art Blakey or Gene Krupa? Whiplash purports to be about the essence of jazz, and yet it disappoints by avoiding the diversity, history, and soul of the sound it wants to preach. Maybe Whiplash can discuss Blue Note Records, but not actually play selections from Kind of Blue because of independent film budgeting? Still, have you ever been to a jazz club or listened to a jazz aficionado? It’s an immersive experience with extensive riffs, either talking about or playing deep cuts from, say, Pharaoh Sanders. Fletcher’s interested in distorting anecdotes and generalizing jazz for his monologues about discipline, which probably works on a 19-year-old. He’s a hand-breaking teacher, but a suspect jazz savant.
But this isn’t Ken Burns’ Jazz. This is Whiplash, a teacher vs. student white-knuckler set within the world of music. It’s not necessarily a piece on music itself, but it feels like it should have been. In the end, the soundtrack fits, and Whiplash works incredibly well as a kind of psychological, academic scare, and it plays its way to a gigantic, emotionally powerful close.