‘Whiplash’ Movie Review: JK Simmons Pushes Miles Teller Past His Limits
What does it take to be great at something? In his book, “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell posits it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. He references the Beatles played gigs all over London and a young Bill Gates spending his youthful downtime tinkering with supercomputers he just happened to have access to by way of circumstance. Hell, by Gladwell’s measure, you’d think Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” would be the Wilt Chamberlain story.
Though the old adage is “practice makes perfect,” coaching and mentorship also play an incredible part in individual achievement, as any sports fan can attest. A great coach takes the talent of his/her players and is able to maximize their ability through scheme and training. With the right leader, a band of misfits can be turned into world-beaters as depicted in so many sports films. Of course, the mentor/mentee relationship requires equal amounts of talent as any anti-fan of the Oakland Raiders would be happy to tell you. Their carousel of wrong coaches paired with wrong players will never make a right, yet they keep trying anyway, god bless ‘em.
“Whiplash” is really just a sports film where the athletic feats are performed by young musicians attempting to lure their instruments into creating a harmonic noise. Yes, I feel about jazz the way your grandfather feels about rap music. But music is not the point of “Whiplash.” It’s about the abuse one is willing to endure in order to achieve promised greatness.
Contrary to what the title may have you believe, the film is not a misguided confederate sequel to “Django Unchained” following the Brittle brothers’ request for revenge. Instead, Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first-year drummer at a music conservatory who aims to achieve his dreams of being the next Charlie Parker (if you’ve never heard of Charlie Parker before, this movie will provide you with an education through repetition of the name, that he was a great jazz drummer). In order to reach such heights, Andrew hopes to be taken under the wing of Terrance Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the school’s studio band instructor. Imagine Gny. Sergeant Hartman training soldiers to tune instead of torture and you have a good idea of Fletcher’s demeanor.
Fletcher abuses his members more than a teenager post-masturbation discovery, but saves a special brand of slapping, screaming, belittling and bullying for the kid with the drumsticks. If Fletcher was teaching at a military musical conservatory, Andrew would be Private Pyle of Shit (which I didn’t know they stacked that high). Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser in a thankless role that’ll receive accolades purely because it’s Paul Reiser) recognizes the abuse, but is powerless to keep it from happening. He doesn’t seem to understand Andrew’s drive to be a jazz drummer, which is perhaps why Andrew is so keen on winning Fletcher’s approval, even if it’s inherently impossible. As Fletcher tells him at one point, “the two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job.’” I’d have suggested “q*eer n*gger,” but in the character’s mind, praise is far worse than hate-speech.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle throws in a little subplot about Andrew and a budding relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), which he eschews in order to concentrate fully on his drumming, afraid she’ll be a hindrance to him reaching his goal (this is the part where if the movie was about rap music I’d quote Jeru Da Damaja’s “Me or the Papes,” “Ain’t no fiends/ coming in between/ me and my dreams,” but I fear Andrew knows as much about this line as I do Charlie Parker’s hits). This is a theme ripe for a film of its own. Though this story exists solely in the shadow of Fletcher and his tyrannical timpani, Chazelle dares to display what so many filmmakers shy away from in the form of an actualized “ask her out” scene. No punches were pulled, as he (and his characters) would continue to show throughout the rest of the film.
Teller is an actor who’s gained steady esteem since I first saw him in a small role as the supposed cool guy in the eternally amoral “Project X.” His rise is certainly not uncalled for as he apparently trained for two months to become a competent enough drummer to pull off the close-ups Chazelle required. His dogged determination mirrors his character’s drive. Chazelle lets his actor show off the acrobatics he’s acquired, allowing us to marvel at both he and the character. Even then, with Fletcher in the mix, it’s the musical equivalent of Paul Dano having a tete-a-tete with Daniel Day Lewis. Simmons embodies the larger-than-life monster that is Fletcher with a rage unseen since perhaps Daniel Plainview mined the west of black gold. His clothes and shirt and bald head give the sense that his body was tuned tightly, probably by his asshole (which of course is his personality). His is the more demonstrable role, though Chazelle ensures Teller gets to be better than a board and hit back. It’s a marvelous mano a mano, with the performances serving to ratchet up tension throughout.
The story of an abusive mentor/mentee relationship is certainly well-worn in cinema. Chazelle just happens to dress it up in a unique world. However, the execution is anything but well-worn. The film is crafted with a precision of which Fletcher himself would approve. Though the film seems to take a cue from “Return of the King” and end a few different times, the final ending proves to be the most satisfying.
An affinity for jazz music probably won’t be the takeaway, but neither was it the intent. Instead, there’s a respect for the skill involved in order to play those instruments. The talent it takes to make art. This is only Chazelle’s second credit, so he undoubtedly has a long way to get to the 10,000-hour mark. However, from the looks of it, he may hit mastery level before he gets there. Must’ve had a really good teacher.