Whiplash takes the meaning of the word tense and dials it up to a thousand.
It’s a question that has often plagued me, as well I’m sure others who have ever competed in any form of sport or art: does the end justify the means? Does pushing a person beyond the limits of what’s typically expected of them, become a reasonable method of motivation if that person goes on to produce something remarkable? Are the two worst words in the English dictionary simply just saying to someone “good job?”. These are the questions that Whiplash forces in your face relentlessly until you’re left with a tense feeling in your bones, and a nervous train of thought in your brain.
The film depicts the relationship between a young and ambitious jazz student, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), and his teacher, the famed but abusive conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Neiman aspires to be the best jazz drummer there is, and he believes Fletcher can take him there. However, what surprises him, is Fletcher’s questionable tactics and methods of using fear as a motivator to get the very best from his students, which often leave them with negative consequences. It’s this level of Neiman’s ambition, and the level of Fletcher’s expectation, that ultimately comes under the microscope of Whiplash, and damn is it great to watch.
For any tension or any emotional connections to be drawn out, in a film and work, one of the critical aspects is the performance of the actors. In Whiplash, we get two very fine examples of that with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, the former going on to win an Oscar for his role in the film. This should have been no surprise to anyone though because holy shit does J.K. Simmons take it up another notch and then some. As an almost logically driven but also crazy maniac conductor, I have never seen a more perfect role for him. OK, maybe his J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy might beat this but fuck me does his portrayal of Terence Fletcher come close. Every single scene with him was dynamic, tense and just so entertaining to watch. What works best is that although you might not believe in his methods, you can completely understand his reasons for doing so and the belief he puts into his character’s performance is a testament.
But given this is a film about music, how does that hold up? Well, unlike some films that would depict actors playing a musical instrument but then dub over the audio later, it seems like a lot of care was given to producing the real thing on screen. Again, this goes back to the great choice in selecting Miles Teller, who in real life actually knows how to play the drums. The scenes that showed sequences of the drum being played, even if they were edited at moments, all looked genuinely real. Yes, I’m still certain that they’d dub in the better audio later on (through the amazingly talented Justin Hurwitz as the person in charge of music), the fact that they took the time to practice and rehearse these scenes with shows a fantastic level of effort to the production, considering how complicated some of the drummings was.
Finally, Whiplash has one of the best endings for a film that I’ve seen in a long time. I’d even say that it could be in the top 10 film endings I’ve seen, almost definitely simply on the level of intensity that it gives. Just as you thought it couldn’t get any more tense, that you’d seen all that there was to be seen, wait till you get to the final act. There has been a whole scope of dramatic films, with typically full-breadth runtimes, that couldn’t come close to producing the same amount of intensity for the last 20 minutes of Whiplash. Seriously, it needs to be seen for that alone. I’ll never forget walking out of the cinema and just being gobsmacked.
To sum it up: go see Whiplash if, somehow, you haven’t already. It’s another one of those Netflix Gems and a film that is still my favorite from writer/director Damien Chazelle (who later on went to do La La Land, another great film).