THE ROAD TO GREATNESS CAN TAKE YOU TO THE EDGE.
Famous jazz drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich had a short temper. His outbursts were caught in secret recordings made in the early 1980s and have become the stuff of legend; another time, Dusty Springfield allegedly slapped Rich after putting up with his insults for several days. When young filmmaker Damien Chazelle wrote a script about a teenager who wants to become the best jazz drummer in the world, Buddy Rich became an inspiration. Not only for his excellent work behind the cymbals, but for his wrath.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is 19 and a first-year jazz student at Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. He’s ambitious; this is one of the best schools in the country and Andrew will not accept anything less than reaching the very top in jazz drumming. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a legend at the school, feared and admired. After watching Andrew play one night, he accepts him as an alternate for his drummer in the studio band.
Andrew makes the mistake of thinking that Fletcher regards him as a wunderkind and is thoroughly humiliated in class for not being able to perfectly match Fletcher’s tempo when he’s conducting. The 19-year-old doubles down on his efforts to reach perfection, but it comes at a cost…
A role actors dream of
The original script appeared on the 2012 Black List of great screenplays not yet produced and part of it was turned into a short film in 2013. Simmons was hired to play the ruthless teacher and when he got the chance to expand his role for this full motion picture version he seemed to relish it. After working as a respected journeyman actor for years he was suddenly provided with a role that most of his peers only dream of – a man who is a monster at heart, driven by ambition but also love for and respect of music. Chazelle, himself once a drummer student, had a similar teacher but wrote an exaggerated version of him for this film, and encouraged Simmons to truly go all the way to bring out that monster within. But the actor gets to show a wide range of emotions, grief as well as a sense of humor, which makes it a complex character.
The questions we as well as many others in the film ask ourselves are, What is the price of excellence? Why are some of us prepared to pay for it? Where do we cross the line between the pursuit of excellence and commonplace sadism? It’s easy to hate Simmons’s character, but we also grudgingly acknowledge the truth of his reasoning. Young Andrew’s journey is just as complex as the portrayal of Fletcher; we follow him as he breaks his back trying to please this tyrant (almost literally in one shocking scene), then watch him mature a little bit until the final showdown arrives in the shape of a trap that Andrew turns against his nemesis.
There were times when I was comparing Teller in his breakthrough with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976), partly because there’s a slight physical resemblance, partly because of the screenplay’s structure. It’s very easy to root for him, even when he behaves like an ass.
Whiplash was a big hit at the 2014 Sundance festival and will forever be a major moment in the careers of its director, Simmons and Teller. But we should also praise other talents involved, especially Tim Simonec who arranged the amazing big-band jazz music of the film, Tom Scott whose editing makes some of the key scenes as rhythmic and exciting as a boxing match (Rocky, again) and Sharone Meir whose cinematography puts the blood, sweat and tears involved in drumming into heartbreaking (and nauseating) focus.
Whiplash 2014-U.S. 107 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michael Litvak. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Cinematography: Sharone Meir. Editing: Tom Cross. Cast: Miles Teller (Andrew Neiman), J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim Neiman), Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang.
Trivia: Dane DeHaan was allegedly considered as Andrew.
Quote: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” (Simmons)
Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Simmons), Film Editing, Sound Mixing. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Simmons). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Simmons), Editing, Sound.
Last word: “The shoot itself was 100 percent grueling. No one was sleeping and everyone was exhausted. And J.K. cracked two ribs when Miles tackles him in that scene. And I got into a car accident halfway through the shoot. And relationships crumbled because of the shoot. There was a lot of shit going on outside of the shoot, but the actual process of shooting? For the most part, people got along. The only thing that made the shoot possible, let alone successful, was the actors and the crew. No one was getting paid a lot. They were working insane hours and they were so focused on the work at hand. All of us felt passionately about the movie and getting it right. And a lot of people involved in the film, whether cast or crew, had music experience or came from that world. So we were all on the same page, trying to make as authentic a portrait as possible of that world.” (Chazelle, A.V. Club)