Arts Review, Movies
Upsetting the hoary clichés about the gentle mentor who turns young musicians into true artists, Whiplash is a stunning drama about high-stakes competition that feels more like a sports film than a musical one. In a role that will definitely land veteran character actor J.K. Simmons an Oscar nomination and possibly the award, a tough jazz bandleader at a New York music school traumatizes his students into giving top-notch performances—or else. Fighting for the role of lead drummer in the band is Miles Teller’s Andrew, a young man obsessed with success.
Simmons’ Terence Fletcher clearly sees life through the same blinkers as Andrew. Neither is interested in anything else besides music and the immortal acclaim of being one of the greats. For Simmons, that time has passed by so he invests all of his considerable musicianship and charisma into being a brilliant teacher and bandleader. While that sounds OK, in practice Simmons’ Fletcher is a nearly psychotic martinet, who regularly castigates his students, using the foulest of languages while embarrassing them if they’re less than brilliant at band practice.
His sadistic approach works with most of the musicians—and particularly with Teller’s Andrew, who has an absolute hatred of mediocrity. In the rare scenes that take place outside of the performance or practice rooms, Andrew meets a sweet young woman, Nicole, and then rejects her because she doesn’t know what she should do with her life. He’s also terribly dismissive of his dad (played by Paul Reiser), who never became a “somebody.”
Inevitably, the relationship between the drummer and his hard-driving mentor proves toxic. But the film has somewhere else to go. The final five minutes of Whiplash justify all of the abuse we’ve seen heaped upon musicians as we watch something wonderful taking place.
Whiplash won the Grand Prize and Audience Award in the dramatic category at the 2014 Sundance Festival. It’s a difficult film but one worth seeing.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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