Although one of the joys of covering a film festival is the cool movies that you might never otherwise see, there are always a few that you have to see even when you know they will being getting some kind of mainstream release. Whiplash – which won both the Jury and Audience prizes at this year’s Sundance Festival, is one of those. And it is just as good as those awards would suggest it is.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a drummer – a prodigy. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do. He has gotten into the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. It’s the highest ranked music school in the country and for the ambitious Neyman, it’s exactly the place he wants and needs to be.
When the conductor of the school’s Studio Band, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) sees him practicing, he invites him to attend the Studio Band’s rehearsal. He seems friendly enough, but when Neyman arrives at the appointed hour of 6 a.m., he sees that the band’s rehearsal doesn’t begin until 9. It’s the first sign that Fletcher is not a nice person.
Indeed, Fetcher is the kind of martinet that recalls famous abusive jerks like R. Lee Ermey’s sergeant major in Full Metal Jacket, or Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. In short, he’s an abusive ass who is willing to manipulate the story of a former student’s death to seem vulnerable and capable of torrents of the most vile racial and sexist epithets to drive his musicians. Fear, it seems, is his preferred tool when it comes to motivation and Neyman bears the brunt of his worst/lowest efforts.
Because he wants to be great, Neyman works until his hands and fingers bleed and he’s so exhausted he can barely stand. At one point, he even drags himself from a car accident to make a performance on time.
In the film’s last act, we learn – among other things – about what really happened to that former student, and why Fletcher is so driven. There are a few moments when we can understand, if not sympathize with, him. But we can never quite get over the fact that, whatever his reasons, he chose to be kind of teacher he was.
At the same time, we can sympathize with Neyman – who evens breaks up with his girlfriend in the name of becoming a great drummer – because everyone has dreams. It’s harder, though, to reamin sympathetic when he continues to submit himself to such torrents of abuse – no matter the eventual outcome.
That’s why Whiplash is great – it gives us cause and effect in a way that goes so far beyond the reasonable, on both sides of the story. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, with only one previous feature film to his credit, has created a staggeringly good film that is fascinating and devastating.
It’s almost impossible, though, to not mention the music. Some of the best-known, and deceptively difficult, jazz standards play a key role – Neyman earns his breakthrough opportunity on the classic Caravan and the titular tune is equally as prominent. Indeed, the music throughout is a genuine treasure trove.
There is considerable awards buzz for Simmons and Teller, and they fully deserve it. Both are brilliant.
In the backs of tickets to each film featured at the Calgary International Film Festival are ballots for the audience prizes. The scale is 1 to 5 – with 5 being a film you want to see aging, right bloody now. Whiplash was an easy 5.
Final Grade: A+