From the moment we’re born, all we ever hear from parents, teachers and coaches is that in order to be great, or successful, we have to work hard. Harder than the next person. Harder than anyone else. If you work hard, you’ll succeed. That’s true. But what about if you wanted to be the best. The best there is. People might tell you you have to be completely dedicated to your craft, and again, work harder than anyone else. But if you take the advice we’re constantly given by our mentors, and you really run with it, at some point society changes their mind, and dedication becomes obsession. Motivation becomes abuse. A single focus becomes a hundred neglects. Where is the line? Even when you know where the line is, do you have to cross it to be the best? Whiplash explores these questions through a young drummer (Miles Teller) and his demanding and terrifying instructor (J.K. Simmons).
The film starts innocently enough. Sweet almost. A young man is trying to grow into himself a little, and is also a huge lover of playing the drums. He thinks he wants to be great, and he works pretty hard. His talent is clear, and eventually he gets into a prestigious music school and gets noticed by the notorious instructor “Fletcher” who leads the best band in the school. There is that moment that most college athletes feel, when they go from being the best athlete at their high school, the an average fish in a big pond. It’s from this point on that J.K Simmons earns every bit of recognition he’s getting this awards season.
The first instance of verbal, and almost physical abuse from Fletcher is a shock for young Andrew, but as the film goes on, and the abuse and pushing gets worse, the kid pushes on. The performances by the two leads are simply fantastic. Miles Teller really is on his way to an incredible career, taking what has been a good start and cementing it with a multi-faceted performance. His character changes throughout the film and he manages the change brilliantly. But this was J.K. Simmons’ film. The guy was incredible. He is verbally savage. Demanding. Intensity oozes from everything he says. He delivers one liners with such ferocity sometimes that you feel like he was talking to you. But what was so genius about his performance is that somehow despite the fact that he’s doing every he can to make you hate him, and to some extent you do, I had this strange admiration for him. There’s a likability there. I found myself trying to suppress it, because I wanted to despise the man. But this way made for a much, much more real experience.
It’s this one on one battle between the two of them that is the heart and soul of the film, but the supporting cast do a nice job giving us an idea of how this journey Andrew is on is affecting them, and his life outside music. Some good performances from Paul Reiser as Andrew’s father, and Melissa Benoist as his girlfriend fit in nicely in their limited screen time. As do the cast of fellow musicians, who are just as abused (well almost) as Andrew by the tyrannical instructor.
What the film really does, which makes it all the more interesting, is that it doesn’t present this black and white scenario. Young boy deals with abuse from mean teacher. Not exactly. As the film goes on, we start to wonder if there isn’t something to what J.K. Simmons’ maniacal musician was saying and doing (well, maybe not the doing). The boy is getting better at drumming, that’s for sure. Isn’t that what he wanted? As I mentioned before, there’s a strange admiration for the monster that is Fletcher. Asking yourself if maybe that really is what it takes to become the best at something is a part of what makes the experience of this great film all the more fun.
Overall, Whiplash was one of my favorite films of the year, and deserves some acclaim. Other than one segment near the end where unfortunately, things got a little out of the realm of belief (they could have definitely made the same point with a less heavy handed approach), the film is damn near perfect. If you haven’t already, get out there and see Whiplash.