The best film in what has been a very strong year, writer-director Damien Chazell’s story of a 19-year-old jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his relationship with his driven jazz teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, is flawlessly delivered and thought-provoking. Teller aspires to be the next Buddy Rich, and matriculates at the best music school in the country. Simmons chooses him to join his ensemble, a stepping stone to greatness but also, an invitation to the meat grinder of abuse handed out by the demanding, mercurial instructor.
The story avoids every pitfall and expected plot turn of a feature film, yet it is not contrary for the sake of it. You can count on two hands the places a more pedestrian picture would take you, and the resolutions it would offer, but in service of a better narrative, Whiplash rejects the certainty of the tried and true, instead allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions.
The film is also about something, exploring the nature of greatness and what is necessary to achieve it; the limits of drive and the intersection of ego and cause; the meaning of teaching; and the changes and struggles between nature and nurture, raising children, molding character and demanding perfection. At one point, Simmons remarks, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” and while that may play well to the instincts of some, he is such a flawed deliverer of the message, the audience is forced to question such an ethos knowing it will be practiced by such people. I saw the film with my wife, my college-age daughter, and my high school-age son, and we talked about it – and I’m confident will continue to do so – for some time.
The film is evenhanded, a trait best represented in its depiction of minor characters. In a family dinner scene, Teller’s family, who appear casually condescending towards his achievements, are also perfectly decent, pushing back at his obnoxious “tortured artist” routine with annoyance but also concern and patience. When Teller is approached by an attorney who represents a student allegedly harmed by Simmons’ practices, she does not lick her chops.
The picture is also stunningly confident, an achievement made even more impressive by its 19 day shooting schedule and $3.1 million budget. Clint Eastwood released a film about music earlier this year, and he should have consulted Chazell about how to make Jersey Boys less static, less turgid. Whiplash is loaded with musical numbers played by stationary figures, but the camera riffs along with notes, constantly in motion, and like the art form it dramatizes, it is inventive and surprising.
I can’t commend the performances of Teller and Simmons enough. They are both entirely natural and convincing, Teller conveying the conflicting hubris and hesitation of an ambitious yet shy young man, Simmons the grandiosity and brutality of the committed, brilliant instructor, inspiring one minute, petty the next.
Finally, Chazell has done something that is very rare in film. I suppose there are some folks who see Gladiator and think, “Hmmm. Roman history looks interesting. I might take a look into that.” But not many. Conversely, by his own depiction of the music, and the dramatization of love for it through the eyes of Teller and Simmons, I’m confident that many people who see Whiplash will one day look back at it as their entrée to jazz. That may be my enthusiasm for the picture talking (I’m not a jazz enthusiast myself), but I’m sticking with it.