Jazz is probably not high on many people’s lists when it comes to interesting topics for a movie, but in the hands of writer/director Damien Chazelle, it is the impetus for one of the most intense, gut-wrenching and flat-out best films of 2014, Whiplash.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a jazz drummer at the prestigious Schaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He, along with every other student there, hopes to catch the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the intimidating and exacting teacher who leads the school’s lead jazz band.
The way Miles Teller attacks the set, combined with key shots of bloodied hands and sweat-drenched drums, will have even audience members gasping for breath.
But Andrew’s dreams soon turn into the stuff of nightmares, as Fletcher, while praising Andrew in private, takes almost every opportunity he can get to degrade him in public, all in an effort to make Andrew the best he can be. Andrew, with an obsession to become one of the all-time jazz greats, can do little but push forward as best he can.
Chazelle ramps up the suspense of the film with kinetic camera movements that match the rising intensity of the story. The camera zooms in on faces and hands, swoops across the room, and, appropriately, whips back and forth between characters to create an action feeling in an environment where very little action takes place.
The drum set does contain a lot of action, and the combination of Teller’s performance and Chazelle’s filmmaking turns his playing into the stuff of legend. There’s only so much of the playing that you can fake, and the way Teller attacks the set, combined with key shots of bloodied hands and sweat-drenched drums, will have even audience members gasping for breath.
But it’s the powerful struggle between Andrew and Fletcher, and stellar performances by Teller and Simmons, that make the movie. Teller literally puts his sweat, blood and tears into the role, and he makes you believe that Andrew would do anything to accomplish his goal.
Simmons’ bald head, craggy face and bulging veins are scary enough, but the way he inhabits the punishing Fletcher puts him over the top. Both he and Teller deserve Oscar nominations.
Whiplash is not the descent into madness that Black Swan was, but it’s another brutal and thrilling look at what can happen when people let their obsessions get the better of them.