Faith & Film: Whiplash

To say that I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life is an understatement! However, it’s not an understatement to say that “Whiplash” is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever experienced.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz student in a prestigious music conservatory. He has long dreamed of being a jazz drummer, and has worked hard at it. Not only does he want to be a good drummer, he has high aspirations to be great.

One day esteemed and feared jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) hears Andrew practicing and comes in the rehearsal room. After a brief chat, Fletcher invites Andrew to play in his ensemble. Fletcher is well known for his intimidating style. Another student tells Andrew not to worry, that Fletcher’s bark is a lot worse than his bite. Andrew soon learns that both Fletcher’s bark and bite are pretty scary.

Fletcher’s style is in-your-face intimidating, to say the least. He singles out his students and screams at them and berates them, often using very rough profanity. Fletcher even throws a chair at Andrew. When Fletcher zeros in on a student, none of them can look him in the eye. Fletcher justifies his behavior by saying that he wants to push his students to the edge to bring the best out of them. He hates the expression “good job,” stating that it rewards mediocrity. Ironically, Fletcher tells Andrew just to relax and enjoy his music. But it’s impossible to relax when Fletcher is in the room.

“Whiplash” was released in the fall to critical acclaim. Because it is a small film, without any big-name stars, it did decent business for an independent film. But now it has been brought back after being nominated for many awards. It just received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

In particular Simmons has been acclaimed for his terrifying performance as Fletcher. He’s certainly no Mr. Chips! You probably don’t recognize his name, but you will recognize his face from television shows like “Law and Order” and “The Closer.” He’s also in commercials. In the movies, you may remember him as the understanding father in “Juno.” But this is a role of a lifetime for Simmons, and he is the favorite to win the Oscar, just as he won the Golden Globe. Miles Teller is also excellent as Andrew, who practices so hard that his hands bleed. Despite his young age, Andrew refuses to be intimidated by Fletcher.

“Whiplash” is a very accomplished film. It features a lot of great jazz, wonderfully filmed. It’s well-written and directed by the young Damien Chazelle, who certainly has a bright future ahead of him. Chazelle handles all the moods of the film like an old pro. These moments include intimate scenes between Andrew and his dad and his girlfriend; scenes of Andrew practicing drums so hard that his drumsticks are covered with blood. The performance scenes, particularly the final scene at Carnegie Hall, are very well done. But it’s the scenes that focus on Fletcher that no one who sees the film will forget. I was constantly on edge, never knowing when he would explode! It’s an unnerving experience.

Is Fletcher a hero or a villain? A great teacher who pushes his student so hard that they accomplish things they never dreamed of? Or a schoolyard bully who rationalizes his style so as to use his power over others? This is the gnawing question that lingers after “Whiplash” comes to an end.

Whatever you think of Fletcher, Simmons gives an amazing performance in an amazing movie. When there are so many remakes and sequels out there, it’s refreshing to see something as unique as “Whiplash.” I doubt it will be at theaters much longer, but you will probably be able to see it at home soon.

Tom Condon, OP