When I served on the U.S. Dramatic Jury at this year’s
Sundance Film Festival, my fellow jurors and I agreed that one film stood out
above the rest: Whiplash. It also won the Audience Award, a sure sign that it’s a
crowd-pleaser. I’m so glad Sony Pictures Classics is releasing it theatrically
beginning this weekend. Writer-director Damien Chazelle grabs us with his
dynamic story and holds us in the palm of his hand from beginning to end—even
if that finale stretches credulity to the breaking point.
Miles Teller, whose reputation grows with each new film,
plays a jazz drummer who’s been accepted to the country’s leading music
conservatory, in New York City. The intimidating leader of the school’s top
jazz band (J.K. Simmons) is sufficiently impressed to recruit Teller but puts
the naïve newcomer through an emotional wringer and never lets up.
Chazelle is interested in what makes an artist stand out and
what does he or she have to sacrifice in order to achieve greatness. He also
explores, in grim detail, how a teacher can goad an impressionable student to
the absolute limit, and asks us to ponder whether the end justifies the means.
Simmons is electrifying, and thoroughly believable, as the
s.o.b. who thinks the worst thing anyone can say to a budding musician is “good
job.” Teller is equally convincing as his latest victim—or is it protégé? (His
hero is the great Buddy Rich, who as a bandleader was anything but paternal.) Paul
Reiser is well cast as the drummer’s protective father and Melissa Benoist is
touching as Teller’s first girlfriend in the City.
The music is propulsive throughout. The film makes terrific
use of Hank Levy’s big-band chart “Whiplash” and an equally driving arrangement
of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Credit is due to composer Justin Hurwitz, music
supervisor Andy Ross, and big-band writer-arranger Tim Simonec for their
contributions to the soundtrack. As a lifelong jazz fan, I hope the movie
inspires people to seek out more of the same. The Buddy Rich Big Band wouldn’t
be a bad place to start.
Chazelle has made no secret of the fact that the film is
inspired by his own experiences as a drummer in high school, but not everyone
can tap into their youthful life lessons so well. Whiplash whips its audience into a frenzy, as proven by the burst
of applause that has accompanied both showings I’ve attended. Chazelle’s next
project is a full-scale musical: I wish him nothing but success.