Just My Tempo: A Great Character Actor Finally Takes Center Stage In “Whiplash”

Review, “Whiplash” – **** stars (out of ****)
Alex’s Favorite Movie of 2014

Released October 10, 2014
Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Cinematography by Sharone Miller
Starring J.K. Simmons, >Miles Teller, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Running Time: 107 minutes
Budget: $3.3 million
Worldwide Box Office: $50 million

WARNING: This review contains spoilers up to the movie’s last 30 minutes. Proceed with caution or, you know, just watch the movie first.

WOAH. Here, my friends, is a great movie, the best of 2014. And it all starts with the Oscar-certified glory that is J.K. Simmons’s performance as the conservatory jazz conductor from hell. The teacher, Terrence Fletcher, is so relentlessly cruel and sadistic, and yet so magnetically brilliant that our hero, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller, in a star-making turn) wants to appease him anyway, no matter the personal, physical, or psychological cost. A big thing about the flick – I’m not sure this thing was wholly designed to be taken literally. Obstacles are hurled at poor Andrew like something out of a horrible dream. The trouble starts soon after Andrew is hand-picked by Fletcher to join the latter’s jazz band, the most prestigious group in the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory. After being given the kind-of-affectionate, kind-of-belittling nickname of “the squeaker” for his relative youth (he’s a first year, swimming with considerably more seasoned students), Andrew takes his first turn behind the kit. And makes a tiny, microcosmic error in timing. Fletcher stops the band cold. And descends into a fantastic rage. This is maybe 15 minutes into Andrew’s first day with the band, and serves as an ominous harbinger of what’s to come.

Beyond the physically and verbally abusive martinet that Andrew wants so very badly to impress, there are a bunch of other, highly improbable circumstances conspiring against him. Music books mysteriously disappear seconds before a curtain is scheduled to drop, buses en route to showcases get flat tires, perfect girlfriends (here represented by Melissa Benoist, who’s about to get her crack at TV A-lister status with this fall’s “Supergirl” series) are selfishly dumped to “focus on greatness” (okay, that last one is a self-inflicted failing on his part, but still). And those aren’t even the worst of them: Miles Teller is in a brutal car accident minutes before a show and limps a few blocks to the auditorium. Nobody asks him what happened, even though he is covered in blood. He assumes his seat behind the drums – but of course, he is too damaged to play. And this is ultimately the rhythm of the piece as a whole. Teller overcomes some obstacles, and fails in tackling others. The ebb and the flow of his struggle at first seems to end in a miserable wipe-out.

What happens next, in the space of the movie’s final 30 minutes, is the whole point of the exercise. I should know, I watched the last 30 minutes seven times in a row when I finally caught up with the movie on Blu-Ray. “Whiplash” is not really about jazz drumming, so much as it is about achieving artistic greatness. It’s about striving, and it’s about elevating yourself above demons real and imagined to achieve catharsis. It’s about hard work, and about reconciling the arrogance inherent in obscure creative toiling with basic mores of social decency (by the end of the movie, Andrew’s getting there). It’s about making humiliation and failure your bitch. It’s about rejection. It’s about process. It’s about being young, dumb and fearless. I fucking loved it. It also has made less in its entire run than fucking “Transformers 4” did in one day. The fuck is wrong with people? Even if you didn’t like it, you HAVE to concede that it was trying to say something, that it had a reason to exist beyond just collecting money. I think everybody wants to think that what they produce in life has meaning and significance and value to SOMEBODY external, that they are leaving a trace of themselves behind when the their body ceases to be. They want to make a contribution, even if that contribution only means something to a microcosmic collection of people. As long as it means something to someone. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t really know anymore.



  1. I agree, that movie was incredible. And though it’s not necessarily just about jazz, I think jazz is among a select few artforms that, at least formally, demands extreme technical ability and theoretical knowledge. I believe that for this reason it also seems to attract some of the more obsessive and meticulous members of society, sometimes bordering on the sociopathic, as evidenced by the primary characters of Whiplash. I’m not sure who fits this characterization more perfectly, Fletcher or Neiman. Of course Fletcher performs the physical whipping (of objects, at his musicians) and lashing (verbal assaults), but Neiman is evidently incapable of maintaining a single healthy relationship with another human being. In any case, they both made for compelling characters that drove the film in a way that is increasingly uncommon in popular cinema.

    Reading your review made me want to watch it again. Sup Netflix!

  2. Jazz definitely works as an ideal creative pursuit for what Chazelle is trying to say, you’re totally on the nose there. It is so technical and there really is a way to quantify someone’s relative success or failure in performing/conducting/composing it.

    Both of these guys have serious social issues, driven by such a singular focus. So cool to see such flawed, compelling people in a major movie. Watch it again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *