Directed by Damien Chazelle
To judge from the persistence of performance shows like America’s Got Talent and the continued proliferation of artist documentaries, humiliation and the cult of genius still scratch some itch for audiences. Set in a top-flight New York music school, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash places one obsessive aspirant, drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), in the line of fire of a sadistic jazz teacher and band leader, Fletcher (JK Simmons). His enhanced classroom techniques have all the hallmarks of abuse (manipulation, unpredictability), but all that only feeds Andrew’s masochistic drive, which needs awful obstacles in order to prove his uniqueness.
Quite literally a dark film—rehearsal rooms and other interiors windowlessly lit to suggest abstract musical battlegrounds and Andrew’s tunnel vision—Whiplash runs on that burning double question: does Andrew really have it, and will he finally bite back? The puffily expressive, “slappable” Teller (as Simmons put it at the NYFF press conference) suits his role as ultra-competitive kid looking to prove himself to all comers (status-conscious family members included), with youthful stamina to burn. Chazelle’s split-second editing (and Andrew’s fear-hatred-attachment) feeds the legend Fletcher becomes in Simmons’s delightfully delighted master class in panic-inducing cruelty—all for the greater good of musical perfection and the band, of course.
Often nearly toppling into the ridiculous, Whiplash does deliver beyond the standard beatdown-and-uplift arc with its persuasive cage-match of egos (with the running joke, and reminder, being that the freedoms of jazz require exacting and exhausting dedication). And Andrew is not alone in his world of painful ambition: Chazelle ekes out a girlfriend/foil, who (to Andrew’s bafflement, and a little too evidently to Chazelle’s) seems content with not being as awesome as other people try to be, leading to one of the great bad first dates in recent movies. (Andrew’s band mates surface now and again in his monomaniacal story with the dismaying glimpse of other, equal terrors that don’t have the spotlight.) Whiplash reaches its purest heights and, with its characters, plummets to lows with the dexterity of a virtuoso drum solo, and, after all the preparation and merciless evaluation, finds true catharsis in the release of stage performance.
Opens October 10