Whiplash has been earning raves ever since it debuted at Sundance 2014, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. All these months later, is it worth the hype? Yes, it's worth the hype.
Miles Teller, who resembles a young John Cusack, only infinitely more focused, stars as Andrew Neyman, an aspiring jazz drummer who, in his first year at a fictitious music conservatory in New York City, is inducted into the school's prestigious jazz band. The band is led by a revered – and feared – conductor named Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical perfectionist who browbeats his students into submission, ostensibly to make them better players.
When Andrew finds himself in Fletcher's sights, does it mean that the abusive conductor sees promise in the young drummer? Or is Fletcher just a bully? This is the central question of Whiplash, but writer/director Chazelle goes far beyond the nice-student/evil-teacher setup. He adds enough nuance to both characters to make us understand why Andrew doesn't just walk right out of Fletcher's classroom after the first day of hectoring. With neither character truly good or truly bad, the film leaves us with a lot of moral ambiguities to mull over.
I was also impressed by Whiplash's dedication to showing the (often literal) blood, sweat and tears that go into honing one's craft: anyone who thinks jazz musicians are just laid-back hepcats are in for a shock. It also explores one of the ugly truths about artistic ambition, which is that for those who truly want to be stars, healthy relationships are practically impossible. Other movies would have you believe otherwise, but Whiplash gets it right.
Teller is superb as the would-be Buddy Rich; his performance isn't showy, but it's clear that he put tons of work into learning how to master the drumkit – or at least to make it look convincing enough for the camera. (Teller has done light rock and roll drumming for years, but for the film he trained extensively with a co-star – an actual jazz drummer – for weeks.) As for Simmons, the reliable character actor must have found this the role of a lifetime. He is so sensational that a Best Supporting Actor Oscar seems to be already in the bag.
A couple of scenes that plumb the depths of Andrew's commitment – and Fletcher's sadism – may seem a tad preposterous, but I think they reflect the kind of tall tales that make up so much of jazz lore (one of which is referenced several times in the film). In short, everything here works. At a particularly dull time for American independent film, Whiplash reminds us that it's still possible to make something thrilling, original, and thought-provoking. Do not miss it.