Whiplash

All throughout Whiplash, all I could think of was Black Swan. Then, when it was over, I realized how silly such a comparison was. Sure, both films involve a performer being push to his or her limits, all while doing a subject I really don’t care about — but that didn’t hinder the enjoyment of the film — but that’s really where the comparisons stop. Whiplash plays out like a battle, between its two leads. It’s a student/mentor movie, except the mentor is a jerk and the student is more determined than anyone else, ever, in the history of the world.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is the lead, our student. He’s a jazz drummer, and has managed to get himself into one of the top music schools in the country. The even better students wind up in the band led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is notorious for being incredibly tough on anyone in the band. One day, Fletcher enters a practice classroom and choses Andrew for his band. Finally, Andrew thinks. This will lead to a career.

Well, maybe. It turns out that Fletcher took a special interest in Andrew — because he’s the protagonist — and from here the film deals with just how far Andrew is willing to be pushed. In the very first rehearsal, Andrew winds up in tears. His hands frequently bleed from how much practice — and how hard the practice is — he has to do. He winds up shutting himself out from everyone else, including his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and father (Paul Reiser). Practice, practice, practice.

That’s … basically the whole film, actually. It doesn’t do a whole lot beyond what I’ve already described. You’re watching to see what Andrew’s breaking point is, or perhaps to see Fletcher finally give him credit, because he’s actually quite the drummer. You also might be watching to listen to the band’s songs, which you kind of get to hear in the final scene. Whiplash does contain a lengthy musical segment — I think it’s two full songs in length. And it’s really quite good.

Whiplash is intense. You’re on-edge for its entire running time. The battle of wills between its two main characters is, at times, tough to watch. You’re watching a young man pushed to a breaking point. That’s not easy. But despite the film’s intensity, it’s also quite funny, sometimes sad, and a little shocking. You can’t look away, even if you’re often uncomfortable watching it. Fletcher is a very profane and angry man, at least when he’s teaching, and it’s not enjoyable watching him verbally — and sometimes physically — abuse his students.

With that said, J.K. Simmons is incredible at making you feel that way. He’s taking one of his juicier roles in recent years, and very well could get an Oscar nomination for it. The passion he displays here, as well as the ability to roll insults off his tongue like they’re beads of sweat rolling off a forehead is truly entertaining. Miles Teller, in the lead role, reminds us that when he’s not doing stupid frat-boy comedies that he can be a surprisingly good actor. The grit and determination he shows in the role — as well as the drumming skills, assuming he did lots of the drumming (it looked like he did) — is inspirational.

I don’t have a particular interest in playing music. But, like the aforementioned Black Swan, that doesn’t matter. The subject over which its participants are battling is irrelevant; what matters is that they’re clashing, and it’s wonderful to watch that unfold. You don’t need to know what a treble clef is to appreciate the film, even though those who do play music will likely applaud director Damien Chazelle’s attention to detail when it comes to all of the musical stuff.

Whiplash is certainly quite the experience. It’s a film about two people, and the kinetic energy that occurs when they do battle. One is a promising music student, and the other is the perfectionist teacher who pushes his students to the breaking point to get the most out of them. The two lead actors are great, the entire film is intense — and surprisingly funny — and it’ll leave you feeling energized and possibly inspired after it concludes.

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