The crack of a strike on a snare drum is unique. It's alarming, even violent; yet with a succession of strikes, the drum creates a frame around a space where musical notes can safely land. When the notes in that framework are fine jazz, it's a rare work of art and, appropriately, Whiplash begins with a soul-piercing snap, followed by another and another, gaining in speed and building to a wall of pure rhythm. The young man with the drumsticks is Andrew, played by Miles Teller, in his breakthrough performance. He is in the zone and so are we--in its first minute, Whiplash is breathless. When J.K. Simmons enters the room, playing Terence Fletcher--one of the biggest son-of-a-bitch music geniuses we've ever met--we are left begging for oxygen. Thus begins this outstanding film, which leads a succession of quality movies over the next several weeks that will reach a crescendo by year's end.
We already know Simmons as possibly the hardest working man in show business: He played J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies and TV series; he was a regular on Oz and The Closer; he has appeared in nearly 60 episodes of the Law and Order franchise; and he was, of course, in those State Farm commercials. Simmons now needs to prepare himself for Oscar-bound fame. His performance in Whiplash is worthy of a supporting actor nomination and, as of this writing, puts him at the top of list to win—Simmons' portrayal of Fletcher is delicious and terrifying all at once.
Fletcher is the teacher-leader of one of the best college jazz bands in the United States. Within seconds of interrupting 19-year-old Andrew at the beginning of the film, Fletcher has recruited another student—or maybe a better word would be victim. Fletcher abuses and harasses his charges into greatness, and although it's a story that has been told many times before, it has never been done with such ferocity. Andrew has every desire to impress Fletcher, so he pushes himself beyond his abilities to the point of self-inflicted harm—don't say we didn't warn you: there will be blood.
"There are no two words in the English language that are more harmful than 'good job,'" snarls Fletcher, deriding a culture in which everybody gets a participation medal.
What follows is a powerful, punishing film that showcases two shattering performances from Simmons and Teller, as well as some beautiful music—after the movie, you'll be rushing out to get the soundtrack.
One interesting side note: Whiplash began life as an 18-minute film from writer-director Damien Chazelle, himself a former student jazz musician. When producers spotted the short at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, financing came through to extend the few scenes into a full-length feature. If that's not the stuff of legend, consider this: Whiplash was filmed over the course of a 19-day shooting schedule.
"What seemed like a burden at the time in fact created some kind of crazy energy," Chazelle told Boise Weekly after a screening of Whiplash at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (BW, Cobweb, "Whiplash Keeps Perfect Time in Thrilling Drama," Sept. 5, 2014). "We had a plan but honestly, even with a plan in hand, it was a crazy schedule."
As for casting, Chazelle said he didn't have any particular actor in mind when he was writing the part of Fletcher.
"But then someone suggested J.K., and it made perfect sense. I really wanted to use someone who hadn't yet shown this side of himself in a feature film," Chazelle said.
Even after the enthusiasm Whiplash whipped up in Toronto, Chazelle remained humble.
"I honestly didn't know if it would connect," he told BW.
Does it ever.