Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a promising young drummer, studying at the Shaffer Conseratory in New York. Notoriously strict and demanding Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) soon recruits Neyman for his studio band, but it is not long before Fletcher’s talent for manipulation and bullying drives Neyman to his limits.
The screenplay for Whiplash was listed on the notorious Hollywood Black List in 2012 and, after being made into a short film starring Johnny Simmons, premiered at Sundance almost a year ago. Described as Black Swan with Drums, Whiplash is a study in demands, talent and limits.
Miles Teller, it has to be said, has not always made strong career choices. He first came to prominence in Project X, and moved on to 21 and Over before having a rather unlikeable role in Divergent. All of this seems to change, however, with his dedicated performance in Whiplash. Teller makes Neyman seem like the kind of person you could pass on the street without a second glance. Put him behind a drum kit, however, and Neyman becomes driven, determined and desperate for Fletcher’s approval. Teller makes Neyman relatable while making sure the character’s extraordinary talent and skill are apparent on screen.
JK Simmons is always a joy to watch on screen, and nimbly stole the show in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise, Jennifer’s Body, and any other production you care to name. Simmons originated the role of Fletcher in the 2013 short film, which perhaps gave him an extra advantage here. Simmons is an incredibly watchable actor, but is rarely better than when he is mercilessly tearing someone down, and this is the job he relishes in Whiplash. Simmons also makes Fletcher a master manipulator, so much so that it is often hard for even the audience to tell when he is being kind or cunning.
Damien Chazelle’s screenplay simplifies the entire situation, pitting student and teacher against one another in what seems like a battle of talent, will and wits. The dialogue is not overly memorable, but this is a film that hinges on music, so a gesture covers a thousand monologues. Chazelle also carefully points out Neyman’s dedication to his art, before pitting him against the world as his family and friends try to understand his obsession, and his reverence for his teacher.
As director Chazelle plays the film rather like a piece of jazz music, it starts of smooth before picking up the pace and tempo, and rising to a crescendo. Chazelle allows the relationship between Fletcher and Neyman to take centre screen, as well it should, and although there are times when it is almost impossible to see the point of some characters’ actions, it all becomes clear in the end, in an extraordinarily tense battle of wills in a public setting.
In all, Whiplash is a study in tension and manipulation, and shows that Miles Teller has more to him than obnoxious, drunken youths, and is a breakout for the wonderful but highly underrated JK Simmons. Tension and stubbornness rule the day in a film about a rarely examined musical skill – drumming – and the drive it takes to win respect and be the best.