#NYFF 2014: Whiplash

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Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash played last night and plays again tonight at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning on October 10.

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher at a prestigious Manhattan music school, is a sociopath with a mission. Obsessed with the story of how drummer Jo Jones supposedly inspired a young Charlie Parker to practice harder by throwing a cymbal at his head after he messed up onstage, Fletcher casts himself in the role of mentor as tormentor, bullying his students ruthlessly in the belief that shaming them into relentless practice is the only way to bring out whatever greatness they may possess. Or so he tells Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a drum student whose hunger to excel has become tied up in a need to win Fletcher’s approval, making him particularly vulnerable to the teacher’s taunts and mind games.

This film does for drumming what The Red Shoes did for ballet, focusing—often in frenzied montages or gory close-ups of blistered hands and bloodied drumskins—on the grueling physical exertion involved in getting it right. Liberal quantities of blood and sweat are shed, not to mention the tears Fletcher sometimes forces out of his pupils.

Simmons gives Fletcher’s cocky sarcasm the relaxed confidence of a hard-ass drill sergeant, while Teller moves Andrew from a watchfully diffident underdog to a monstrously entitled alpha dog whose barely suppressed rage sometimes erupts in fountains of vitriol. They are also convincing as musicians, Simmons conducting his band with imperious confidence, a clutched fist his signal to stop, and Teller, a talented drummer, performing most of his character’s drumming.

The other members of the band are largely portrayed by real musicians, so the music—Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” supplemented by jazz written for the soundtrack in the same classical style—is as expertly performed and energetic as the rest of the movie. For Andrew, jazz is an all-consuming calling, a proving ground, and a battleground on which he is in danger of making a Faustian bargain. After Fletcher anoints him as a core member of the school’s best jazz band, he pushes away the few friends he had, becoming arrogant, contemptuous, and obsessed with establishing his place in the musical pantheon.

Aside from a race against the clock and a near-fatal disaster that momentarily create a trumped-up sense of melodrama, writer/director Damien Chazelle sticks to Andrew’s psychological battles with himself and his teacher and Fletcher’s cruelly clever put-downs, mining all the suspense and drama he needs and raising interesting questions without supplying easy answers.

Is public shaming and humiliation really an effective way to bring out the greatness in a musician? And if so, does the end justify the means, even if it involves inflicting serious psychological trauma? Whiplash gives you plenty to think about, then leaves you with a ending that’s satisfyingly triumphal, yet ambiguous enough to invite you to make up your own mind.

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