Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young jazz drummer, single-minded in his pursuit to rise to the top of his elite east coast music conservatory. Plagued by the failed writing career of his father, Andrew hungers day and night to become one of the greats. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor equally known for his teaching talents as for his terrifying methods, leads the top jazz ensemble in the school. Fletcher discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into his band, forever changing the young man's life. Andrew's passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher continues to push him to the brink of both his ability and his sanity.
Everyone knows the pursuit of perfection isn’t easy. Talent is the least of it - a lot of people have that. What separates the wheat from the chaff is a laser focus, undying commitment, and an inner drive that won’t allow the body and mind to quit, even when they’re pushed well past their breaking points. Guts are required, but can only take a person so far. Often a mentor makes the difference, inspiring one to always reach for more, never become smug or complacent, and forever fight the adversity lurking around every corner. The finest motivators are usually strong and a bit imposing. Some are noble, some are nurturing, some are pains in the ass, but most know how to wring from those they counsel that extra ounce of greatness that will set them apart and set them on a course that will give them a fleeting shot at success.
‘Whiplash’ is all about that complex, often dysfunctional and adversarial relationship, and the mind games and ego-bruising that in some cases define it. It’s about the evolution of an artist, the shaping of a human being, and how the controversial tactics of one man either stoke the spirit or break it. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s electrifying film broadcasts a refreshing message to a society that increasingly rewards mediocrity and advocates a false sense of self-esteem. Think of this... Does every member of the last-place five-year-old soccer team deserve a trophy? Should we hand out certificates and plaques to those who try hard, even if they achieve nothing? Will such easy praise fuel their moxie and instill in them the grit and pig-headedness necessary to scale the heights of their chosen profession?
Music teacher and jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) says no. (Actually, he’d put an expletive before the “no,” but in the interest of good taste I omitted it.) Fletcher, who works at the rarified Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, has no patience for average joes who lack the courage of their convictions. His sole purpose is to “push people beyond what’s expected of them” to achieve results and make them the best they can possibly be. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” he says, and though you’ll be horrified at how he treats his pupils and probably won’t condone his methods, by the end of the movie you will surely embrace his words.
Young drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) respects him greatly, and when he’s given the opportunity to join Fletcher's esteemed Studio Band during his first year, he jumps at the chance. Neiman lives and breathes drumming; he practices round the clock, worships the legendary Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and constantly listens to jazz CDs. Yet his immense talent, dedication, and slightly superior attitude don’t impress his peers, all of whom possess the eye of the tiger and brandish a formidable fierceness, arrogance, and deep competitive streak more akin to athletes than instrumentalists. And on their playing field - the concert stage - each musician must be in tip-top mental and physical condition or suffer serious consequences.
That’s tough to do with a taskmaster like Fletcher, who doles out physical and psychological abuse like the Peace Corps doles out CARE packages to the hungry, driving his students to tears, despair, and worse. With an almost maniacal relish, Fletcher berates, slaps, browbeats, sexually harasses, curses, and ridicules them, and all his blows land way below the belt. In a rehearsal hall that each and every day evolves into boot camp, he’s the drill sergeant, joining the ranks of such legendary bullies as Sgt. Foley in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ Neiman struggles valiantly to both survive and prosper, yet the constant stress of Fletcher’s impending wrath coupled with his own encroaching self-doubt continually drag him down, forcing him to muster all his strength to fight the demons that test his mettle, confidence, and commitment.
Chazelle knows his subject well. The film is loosely based on his own experiences, and his sharp, Oscar-nominated script clearly and concisely gets its point across. ‘Whiplash’ isn’t complex, despite putting a topic on the table that will surely inspire debate. It’s beauty lies in its directness. Like the charts the band plays, it’s clean, crisp, and tight. And with the same tempo as a jazz riff, it moves. There’s a pleasing rhythm to this piece - like the beating of a drum - that keeps the viewer engaged, most of it emanating from Tom Cross’ Oscar-winning editing. Coupled with Chazelle’s keen eye, the film conveys a wealth of subtle information in a swift, economic manner that’s a joy to behold. (It’s amazing to think the picture was shot in only 19 days for a cost of a little more than $3 million.)
Simmons just won an Oscar for his pitch-perfect portrayal of the vociferous, in-your-face Fletcher, a guy you can’t help but hate, yet who engenders some grudging admiration for his sound beliefs. Simmons is fascinating to watch, and - clips notwithstanding - his performance is far more than a symphony of bellowing. Finely etched and smoothly delivered, his work never strikes a sour note, nor does that of Teller, who carries the film with an equally captivating portrayal. Neiman is run through the wringer, yet Teller never overacts; even during scenes of heightened intensity, he’s disarmingly natural. His expressiveness lends his character extra depth, and his virtuoso drum playing dazzles the senses and adds essential realism to the movie.
Unfortunately, a couple of minor plot points don’t ring true and prevent me from lavishing ‘Whiplash’ with unqualified praise. But I still love this movie for its presentation, performances, and for what it says about excellence and our society’s reluctance to do what it takes to achieve it. Sure, Fletcher goes too far, but you gotta push those boundaries to find the limitations. At its core, ’Whiplash' is about where to draw the line, what cost we’re willing to pay to achieve our dreams, and what triggers must be activated to spur us on. It’s brash and brutal, a worthy Best Picture nominee, and one of 2014’s finest films.
I was going to end this review by saying "Good job, Chazelle," but in this case, such a statement would not be appropriate. And after all, his film and script didn't win Oscars, so he can obviously do better.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Whiplash' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. A leaflet with a code to access and download the movie's digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Foxcatcher,' 'Mr. Turner,' 'Leviathan,' and 'Red Army' precede the static menu without music.
Digitally photographed in HD, ‘Whiplash’ looks crisp, sleek, and bold, and Sony’s 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer provides an immersive experience that heightens the impact of this intense, intimate tale. Contrast and clarity are superb - some low-lit scenes look a little hazy, but that's to be expected - and not a stitch of grain or any stray marks detract from the pristine picture. Jazz can be a dark, deeply personal art form, and Chazelle infuses his image with lots of rich blacks to emphasize the internal struggles of the characters. Stark, dreary interiors are offset by bright exteriors, and although the color palette remains muted throughout, splashes of red make a palpable statement at critical moments. Sharp detail levels allow us to drink in the purity of the gleaming brass, feel the texture of the drum surfaces, and appreciate Andrew's painful war wounds, and close-ups are equally fine, highlighting subtle hints of emotion (as well as Fletcher's shiny bald pate) and enhancing fiery outbursts. (A shot of beads of sweat intermingled with drops of blood bouncing across an active cymbal is especially memorable.) Flesh tones often adopt a slightly orange hue, due to the warm glow Chazelle often slathers across his practice scenes, but whites are strong, and just a hint of noise occasionally creeps into view. I saw 'Whiplash' in a theater, and this excellent rendering from Sony nicely replicates that experience. It’s not a perfect transfer, but it’s close.
Music movies demand superior soundtracks and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for ‘Whiplash’ doesn’t disappoint. If you weren’t a jazz fan before seeing the movie, it’s a safe bet you'll be one afterward. Perfectly balanced, properly modulated, and bursting with an organic purity of tone, the sound becomes a vital character in this drama, and during the music sequences, every instrument receives its due. Sure, the drums take center stage - and the variance of tone between them and the cymbals is striking - but the tight strains of screaming brass, silky tickling of the piano keys during Fletcher’s club solo, and warm, smoky accents of bass all combine to create a beautifully integrated, fully enveloping soundscape that was justly honored with the Best Sound Mixing Academy Award. Marvelous nuances abound, from the snapping of instrument case clasps and clicking of drumsticks to subtle bits of tuning before rehearsals and shuffling of sheet music. Stereo separation across the front channels is top-notch, but I craved a tad more surround activity, especially as the camera moves around the band during performance sequences. I also felt there wasn’t enough acoustic variation between the practice room and the concert stage, but that’s a minor quibble that won’t bother most listeners. Dialogue is generally clear and comprehendible, and only a couple of hints of distortion could be detected. This is a spectacular track that will please the most discriminating audiophile, but just a couple of tiny quirks keep it from receiving a perfect rating.
Only a couple of supplements are shared between the Blu-ray and DVD releases.
Audio Commentary - Writer-director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons sit down for a lively, engaging commentary that's long on personality, but not quite as substantive as serious film fans might like. There's terrific chemistry between the two men, but their jovial banter gets a bit thick at times and occasionally feels forced. Chazelle calls 'Whiplash' a "drug movie," yet the drug is drumming, and he relates a lot of nuts-and-bolts information about the picture's locations, color palette, use of real musicians, and day-to-day filming. He also talks about material that was cut, his struggle to get the movie made, the pressures of a 19-day shooting schedule, and his own experiences as a young drummer. Simmons provides countless quips and raises the energy level, but his remarks are largely superfluous. This commentary breezes by and features some laughs, but those expecting a more analytical discussion will be disappointed.
'Whiplash' is a searing study of abuse and perseverance that's stunningly realized by writer-director Damien Chazelle. Much has been written about J.K. Simmons' blistering Oscar-winning performance as a bullying bandleader who strikes terror in his musicians' hearts and minds, but Miles Teller is equally good, fashioning a riveting, honest portrayal of a driven, tortured, and passionate young drummer whose pursuit of greatness leads him on a bruising, soul-searching odyssey that almost destroys him. A relevant message sure to spark spirited debate enhances this lean, mean, masterfully directed production that's both thoughtful and visceral. Sony's Blu-ray presentation features an excellent video transfer, close-to-reference audio, and plenty of interesting supplements, many of which are exclusive to Blu-ray. Winner of three Oscars and a Best Picture nominee, 'Whiplash' is hands-down one of the best movies of 2014, and this superior high-def disc does it proud.