'Whiplash' asks, 'How hard should we try?'

Sony Pictures Classics

By Jacob Rich, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 17, 2014

“Whiplash” is the triumphant battle cry of the modern student, a virtuosic film about virtuosos. It’s about the harsh, stressful dog-eat-dog battlefield that is modern higher education. Anyone who’s ever aspired to be the best at something (this film is perfect for U-M students) will be able to relate to its characters. “Whiplash” wholly encapsulates the vast range of emotions that come with one of our most essential traits as humans: ambition.

Whiplash


A
State Theatre
Sony Pictures Classics

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, “The Spectacular Now”) is a freshman jazz drummer at America’s most prestigious music school, Shaffer Conservatory (a fictionalized Julliard). The film’s opening shot, out of focus and distant, tells us through sound alone everything we need to know about him. The kid is good, and driven. He’s more than good — he’s incredible. Better yet, he’s alone, practicing his heart out for his own good. Beginning to end, all but the most expert percussionists will buy Teller’s drumming, thanks to the combined effort of his gritty, utterly soulful physical performance with editor Tom Cross’s ability to seamlessly cut between Teller and his ludicrously talented body double. “Whiplash” ’s drumming is sexualized in rapid-fire sequences of close-ups of the instruments and the men: the sticks, the arms, the drum heads, the beads of sweat on Teller’s forehead, are all imbued by expert lighting to seemingly glow a radiant gold. The film’s music is not only performed in audio form, but with video as an essential component. The editing rhythm moves and flourishes and crescendos with and against the music.

Immediately, Andrew develops a turbulent relationship with the conductor of the school’s highest-level jazz band, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, “Spider-Man”). Utterly demeaning, completely unpredictable and impossible to impress, Fletcher is the band director from hell. Through militaristic coercion adhering to the school of R. Lee Ermey’s infamous drill sergeant character in “Full Metal Jacket,” Fletcher’s toxic encouragement enslaves Andrew to his art, resulting in a fascinating teacher-student relationship that is less a mentorship and more a desperate shotgun duel. Simmons, a typically comedic character actor, breaks out of his “J. Jonah Jameson” (or “Cave Johnson” for the Portal 2 fans out there) typecast and takes on a genuinely powerful and frightening role that will easily contend with the best performances of the year.

The film is smart to not morally justify the lifestyle of its ambitious characters, instead presenting a dichotomy of human philosophy through its supporting cast. Neiman and Fletcher are the Spartan-esque warriors who measure worth unquestioningly by what greatness they can achieve by the time they die. Neiman’s father (Paul Reiser, NBC’s “Mad About You”) and love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist, Fox’s “Glee”) are the other side of the coin, sweet and supportive, but complacent in life. His dad is a rather solemn single father, and Nicole is an indecisive freshman attending her safety school. The film never decides which of these pairs is in the right — it often glorifies the virtuosic ability of the musicians but occasionally shames them for their elitist philosophies in regards to the more average characters.

The climactic scene has dramatic elements that feel a bit implausible, but don’t detract from the overall point. “Whiplash” is a great film, and at that, one that asks questions important to all of us alive right now: how hard should we try to be great? At what point is ambition harmful? At the end, we’re given an answer, but not the answer.