Whiplash is a powder keg of raw human emotion exploding across the screen. The backdrop for this film is jazz, that uniquely American music genre loaded with raw emotion. When you take jazz, add in the brilliant writing and direction of Damien Chazelle, and the jaw-dropping performances of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, you’ve got a formula for hard edged breathtaking entertainment that “comes up trumps,” as they say in the U.K. It is easy to see why it is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Simmons and Teller are in their element as they deliver scene after exhilarating scene with precision and perfection.
Whiplash gets its name from a jazz standard with the same title written by the late American jazz composer/saxophonist Hank Levy. Chazelle himself was a jazz drummer in high school who realized early on that his talents lay elsewhere, and he based his screenplay for Whiplash on his experiences with an overbearing music teacher.
Teller (Rabbit Hole, Fantastic Four) stars as Andrew Neiman, a first year jazz drummer attending a prestigious New York music school who has aspirations to become the next Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa. His father is Jim Neiman, played by Paul Reiser (Mad About You), a high school teacher, who frequently attends the movies with him. It is at the movie theater where he meets his soon-to-be girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who works behind the concessions counter.
Neiman soon catches the attention of Terrance Fletcher, played by Simmons (Spider-Man, Oz, The Closer, Farmers Insurance spokesman). Simmons has garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for this role. He won the SAG Award, and the Golden Globe for the same. My money is on him to take home the Oscar as well. Simmons, who certainly deserves the accolades he has received, is absolutely amazing as Fletcher, a venerate jazz musician, and member of Shaffer Conservatory faculty who conducts the prestigious in-school studio band, which performs at jazz competitions. Fletcher is possessed of a manic quest for perfection, resulting in his being wildly abusive to his students, seeming to relish in pitting them against each other. Fletcher’s bullying only serves to drive Neiman’s own mania to be the best: he practices the drums well into the night until his hands bleed, shuts people out of his life, attempts to perform with severe injuries and shock from an accident, and even physically attacks Fletcher on stage at a competition.
One of the genius elements of this movie is that the viewer gets occasional glimpses into the soft underbelly of Neiman and Fletcher’s humanity as Chazelle deftly peels back the layers of his carefully crafted characters, revealing they are more than one-dimensional.
Whiplash is a cinematic adrenaline rush well worth experiencing. Its five Oscar nominations including Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay, are justifiably warranted. Anyhow, that’s the way I see it.