Whiplash | Damian Chazelle | New York Film Festival 2014
“5, 6, 7–” Intensity. Know the word, because that’s what Whiplash delivers. Director Damien Chazelle presents his adeptly-named sophomore film about a young man’s journey into the world of competitive jazz; featuring a marvelous screenplay and wonderful performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Jazz music seems to have slipped the minds of the new generation. With it’s complexities in both performance and consumption, it might just be a bit too daunting for your average Beats-wearing twenty-something. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a drawling treatise on musical theory…it’s quite the opposite.
Whiplash’s energy comes from the music, driven through those performing it, and straight into your feet. Andrew Neyman is a freshman at the country’s top musical conservatory. The walls of his room are plastered with pictures of the drumming all-stars and sheets of music. Sparked by fate and driven by his need to prove himself, he relentlessly pursues his goal of becoming the greatest jazz drummer of all time. Miles Teller proves once again that he can make us feel like we’re back in our youthful shoes, where the world is our oyster. I quite liked him in The Spectacular Now, and he still has all of that ability to be humorous and dramatic with natural aura. Neyman’s bright-eyed enthusiasm meets it’s match when he serendipitously makes contact with Terrence Fletcher, the school’s most revered -and feared- instructor.
J.K. Simmons steals the spotlight with his incredible performance. He’s been in a lot of things, always liked, but never had a role that so perfectly embellished his strengths. Fletcher blurs the line between madman and genius, with his tutoring methods being terribly extreme to the point of abuse. His ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ personality perfectly fills in the void in Neyman’s, and the two play off of each other to our horror and amusement. (His excellent voice work for Portal 2 featured a rant about lemons, one so passionately delivered that it went viral.) It’s not all just explosions of racial and homophobic rants, all of which Simmons himself improvised, there’s much more to the man than meets the ear. When you think you’ve got him figured out, one morning at practice he stops to pay homage to a former student, and we see this monument of a man reveal his cracks. J.K Simmons has played a lot of grizzled, off-the-hip characters, but this is a whole new dimension that solidifies his true finesse.
The film itself looks great. Cinematographer Sharone Meir, whose credits include The Last House on the Left (2009) and Mean Creek (2004), along with Chazelle use the camera to pace with the jazz. There are beautiful macro shots of sweat and blood atop the head, and minute vibrations captured on film. Many of the scenes are so fast paced that you might miss some of these nuances…but that’s the way it goes. In regards to the writing, I appreciated that Chazelle did not dwell too long on the romantic aspect of Neyman’s life. While it’s important to make the character relatable, we’ve already seen that song and dance a million times. Whiplash does an amazing job of focusing so much energy on the actual musical performances, it never skipped a beat.
With all the bars written out on it’s pages, Whiplash really is something we haven’t seen before. It was one of the best films screened at the New York Film Festival, and it’s definitely on the road to the Academy Awards. Riddled with awesome performances, impeccable direction, and a truly unique premise, you won’t want to miss it.
WHIPLASH is in theaters now. Check your local theater for showtimes!