Film Score: Justin Hurwitz Cinematography: Sharone Meir
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist
Whiplash. Writer-director Damien Chazelle had originally turned a portion of his screenplay about a driven music teacher into a short film featuring Simmons and Johnny Simmons as the drummer. After a successful run at Sundance, Chazelle was able to attract investors to produce the full film, signing Miles Teller to play the role of the drummer and attracting the likes of Paul Reiser as well. After completion of the film Chazelle went right back to Sundance and again received positive reviews. J.K. Simmons, of course, was praised as well and a few weeks before the Oscars he also won the Golden Globe in the same category. The film also won Academy Awards for best sound mixing and best editing. The praise, however, was not universal and there were many critics who felt much of the discussion of genius and its relationship to practice is untrue and that the film denigrates jazz in the process.
The film begins with Miles Teller working out on his drum kit in a practice room of a performing arts college in the Bronx. When J.K. Simmons comes into the room Teller stops. Simmons asks him to play a couple of things then leaves. When Simmons comes back in Teller brightens, but it was only to get his coat he forgot. At the movies that night Teller tells his father, Paul Reiser, who is supportive, saying that he has plenty of time. At rehearsal the next day Teller, in his first year, is an understudy. Simmons’ shadow is seen outside the door but he doesn’t even come in. Simmons is a famed conductor and teaches the most advanced class in the school, hand-selecting students for his band. One morning he shows up and tests the other students in Teller’s class, then picks Teller to meet in the practice room the following morning at six. Tell waits in the empty room until nine, when the band actually shows up, and finds out he’s the new alternate drummer for Simmons’ top band. From there, the sadistic Simmons demonstrates his unmerciful style, pushing students to excel like a drill sergeant, breaking them down and humiliating them in order to get the best performance possible. Finally, Teller earns the top spot on the drums.
With his newfound confidence he begins dating the girl from the concession stand at the theater, Melissa Benoist, confronts his cousins at the dinner table about what he feels is their inferior pursuit of sports, and soon loses all fear of Simmons himself as he dedicates his young life to achieving excellence. But when Simmons pushes him too far, Teller loses control and nearly destroys everything he has worked for. The whole point that Simmons character makes--that genius can come out of practice--is certainly untrue, and is easily the Achilles heel of the film as everything follows from that. The only thing that practice can do is to reveal genius that already resides within the individual. Nevertheless, that’s not necessarily the most important point of the film. When Simmons says that no one pushes kids to be more than what they are, he’s right, and it’s this idea that needs to be celebrated. Humiliation is in the eye of the beholder, and for those who are easily humiliated, that kind of treatment can be a valuable lesson, something that will inevitably make them a stronger person. The real message of the film is whether or not the collateral damage is worth it. How far is too far, and what do we lose in the single-minded pursuit of excellence? Whiplash has no easy answers, but the powerful way in which it raises those questions is well worth seeing.