Achieving his stated goal of making a movie about music “that felt like a war movie” with each musical performance “a life-or-death contest,” ex-drummer and now accomplished filmmaker Damien Chazelle has created in “Whiplash” an intense study in sheer madness endured for one’s art.
Both celebrating and questioning the very notion of giving one’s all for artistic triumph, Chazelle’s film is a riveting and at times disturbing probe into the fear of failure that often lies at the very heart of artistic success.
The movie has at its center two mesmerizing performances by actors playing characters locked in near mortal combat. Miles Teller, only a little more than a year after his impressive performance as a high school alcoholic in “The Spectacular Now,” plays a 19-year-old drummer, Andrew, who idolizes the legendary Buddy Rich and wants to ascend into that league of greatness.
Accepted into the No. 1 nationally ranked Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, he encounters a forbidding, abusive teacher in Terence Fletcher, played by long-time character actor J.K. Simmons in the role of a lifetime.
With shaved head and tight-fitting black clothes, Fletcher looks like a brooding, aging Hamlet only with Lear’s temper and Macbeth’s malevolency. He commands a rehearsal room by merely walking in.
In another movie he would be a cautionary example of a sadistic, bullying teacher. But in this movie he is the perfect match for young Andrew. The kid wants to be goaded to greatness.
The film pivots around the possibly apocryphal story about a young Charlie Parker, a so-so saxophonist, who supposedly screwed up a solo one night. The drummer threw a cymbal at his head causing the audience to jeer him offstage.
Parker practiced like a mad man for a year, then returned to the stage with greatness in his playing. The Svengali-like Fletcher believes in that methodology — throwing cymbals along with verbal and even physical abuse at young boys (there being few women in his school band).
The trouble is, Andrew believes in it too — up to a point.
At least he tolerates it and even adopts his mentor’s harsh manners at a family gathering and later with a sweet young woman (Melissa Benoist), whom he shyly begins to date only to break it off when he sees her as an obstacle on his road to greatness.
In graphic details the film portrays the youth’s ascendency into the echelon of Fletcher’s personal band consisting largely of senior boys. Then come the master’s harangues against him and other alternative drummers in vile, degrading speech with sexual and ethnic slurs part of the parcel.
This forces Andrew to redouble his efforts, practicing like a Charlie Parker until his hands bleed and blister from his grip on the drum sticks.
You get a bit of backstory about how Andrew may be trying to escape the example of his father (Paul Reiser), who failed at writing so turned to public school teaching only for his wife to desert him and the family.
About Fletcher though you get none. It might have been a deeper story had Chazelle dug into this disturbed guy’s psychological make-up. What turns a music teacher into a Marine Corp. drillmaster and such a hate-filled one at that?
What do the other boys in the band think of this abuse? They sit back, silently, while this abuse happens. They lack any personality; they’re dress extras.
These are the stumbles of a young filmmaker whose focus goes too deeply in one area while ignoring other characters who might potentially enrich the drama.
This all culminates in one just barely plausible first climax followed by an even greater second climax at an unforgiving Carnegie Hall concert, a cathartic moment for which the script does a barely adequate job of preparation.
Thus the power of the film gets diminished somewhat in the singularity of focus and some skimpy story construction. The film itself feels rushed, as if a band is playing too fast to get to the next concert date.
Such is the power of Teller and Simmons’ performances though you will not likely forget their duel constructed, as the filmmaker wished, more like a war movie than a story about a teacher and a pupil.
Opens: October 10, 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Bold Films, Blumhouse/Right of Way Productions
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton
Director/screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Helen Estabrook, Jason Blum, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Jason Reitman, Couper Samuelson, Gary Michael Walters, Jeanette Volturno-Brill
Director of photography: Sharone Meir
Production designer: Melanie Paizis Jones
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Tom Cross
R rating, 106 minutes