Live music makes the body tingle. So does this film.
The sound of percussion instruments lays the foundation for a great performance, providing the solid backbeat that allows brass, wind, stringed, and vocal instruments to carve out melodies. When drums come to the forefront, either in composition or improvisation, it’s an altogether primal explosion of rhythm, beat, rhythm, beat that defines an altogether different kind of melodic expression.
That is the sort of creative expression explored in Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Largely contained in a rehearsal room at a prestigious Manhattan performing arts college, the film revolves around a much-respected, much-feared instructor / conductor named Fletcher. Embodied by J.K. Simmons as a mythic figure who brooks no nonsense, Fletcher instills his students with an abiding terror of being stripped naked, revealed as no-talent musicians who are mere pretenders before his mighty throne.
Chazelle reinforces the impression with near-monochromatic visuals of the rehearsal room, which resembles the lair of a great dragon, bare and forbidding. The student musicians perform on command like well-trained slaves, frightened to make an error because they know the great dragon has perfect pitch, and will instantly turn and burn offenders without regret.
Into this intimidating lair strides 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller), who is obsessed with Buddy Rich and a burning desire to become, not just a great musician, but one of the all-time greats, the handful whose names are spoken with reverence down through the decades. He practices, willingly, until his hands blister and then bleed, wiping off the blood so he can affix bandages and keep on drumming.
He is not alone in his fiery ambition. He is selected for the school’s jazz orchestra by Fletcher over a slightly older (and taller) fellow drummer, and then sits in the junior chair behind the primary drummer in the orchestra, impatiently waiting for his oppotunity to star, which arrives soon enough. It’s exactly what he wanted, but he finds Fletcher’s relentless perfectionism to be an exhausting challenge.
Again, surely he is not alone in his desperation and struggle, but he has chosen to isolate himself from other people in his blind ambition to be the best, shutting down possible friendships, and even closing off his relationship with his devoted father (Paul Reiser). What matters is to be the best. Andrew is convinced that the only path to achieve greatness is to devote his body and soul entirely and wholly to the task at hand.
Now in his late 20s, Teller retains a youthful look, bolstered by his average height and appearance. He is introduced in the film behind the drums, fully focused on his kit, a maniacal music man who will never voluntarily give up his sticks. Away from the drums, Teller as Andrew appears to be an ordinary young man, shy, polite, and diffident, but once he assumes his position, it becomes clear that he was born to play drums, that it’s the only place where he feels truly comfortable in the world.
For his part, Simmons crafts a frightening personality out of a lean of his head and a look in his face. His deadliest instruments are his eyes and his mouth, dispensing disgust and displeasure in varying degrees of disapproval. His hands and arms are weapons of mass destruction, able to fire off missiles that wipe out the enemy, i.e. misfiring musicians, with deadly accuracy.
Even as the action is kept tight, Chazelle accents the piece with grace notes in the variety of shots and incredibly taut editing. The film flies by at such a high pitch of anxiety and suspense that the (very occasional) slowdowns and missteps seem very much out of place, reminders that Whiplash is, after all, only a movie.
Yet movies rarely achieve the heights that Whiplash sustains, nearly throughout its running time. It’s a high cinematic and musical achievement, emblazoning the heart of a drummer on the soul of a movie screen.
The film opens today at Landmark Magnolia in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano. It expands to the Modern Art in Fort Worth on November 14.