In an often-repeated story in Whiplash, when the saxophone legend Charlie Parker was a young novice he had a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, who was irritated at his playing style. Parker would shake it off and eventually become one of the most important players in musical history.
The first time this story is told, it’s slanted toward Charlie Parker, the young punk with the determined spirit. The second time it’s slanted toward Jo Jones, the pig-headed teacher pushing his student to his true potential. The beauty of Whiplash is that it’s actually about both men — the master and the apprentice. The road it takes to bring those two sides together is a hard slog through turbulent waters, but it’s worth it in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, one of the best movies of 2014.
We begin with the apprentice, Andrew (Miles Teller), who’s at a prestigious music school in New York City. The eager young drummer is working his way up through the ranks of the school’s band programs when he meets the school’s head instructor, a stubborn monster by the name of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). We get lots of practice time with Fletcher, who runs his rehearsal space like it’s North Korea. In an early scene he torments one trombone player who may be out of tune. The poor kid is assaulted with homophobic slurs, threats of violence and Fletcher fuming in his face. The college-age kid eventually starts crying, a common occurrence under Fletcher’s direction.
Andrew thinks he has this drum thing all figured out, until Fletcher smacks him into his place as an alternate. But Andrew doesn't give up. He practices at night, listens to music of the greats, sleeps in his rehearsal space and dumps a girlfriend who was likely going to ask for more time with him. His practice routine is so intense that blood pours from open blisters on palms and fingers. Bandages just slip off the raw wounds. But the practice pays off and Andrew gets a spot on the jazz band.
But then trouble really starts as Fletcher lays into his musicians. In one especially awful session, he forces three of his drummers to do a double-time swing until they get it right. Hours later, one of them is victorious. He tells the losers, “Alternates, clean the blood of my drumkit!” Then, after all that comes a kicker: “OK, now we can start practicing.” The audience I saw Whiplash with groaned audibly at his cruelty. This is the norm: Fletcher intimidates his students, terrifies them, belittles them, and grinds their ambition into a fine powder. In one scene, he’s seen making nice with a student, asking about his parents, inquiring about his past. He’s gathering ammunition. Sure enough, one missed note later — “a tonal catastrophe” — and the kid’s entire family history is being heaved at him like a battering ram. I haven’t seen torture this cruel since 120 Days of Sodom.
Simmons plays a monster brilliantly. He’s so often the nice guy, the kind dad, the affable boss … and here he is a contemptible jerk and sadist. Awards season is going to be nice to Simmons. He has one line that sums up his cynicism and contempt for compliments: “There are no two words in the English language worse than ‘good job.’” Teller, it should be said, is also fantastic. He’s a drummer himself, which allows Chazelle to film his hands and to show wide shots with Teller behind the kit. It’s a nice touch to see the actor doing the hard work, and Teller’s humble presence makes it all the better.
My experience with phenomenal drumming is the Buddy Rich drum-off with Animal on The Muppet Show, so take my praise with a grain of salt, but the drumming is electric. I loved all the little insert shots — close-ups of hands, tuning keys, drumheads, bloody palms, and vibrating cymbals — that bring us up close and personal with the instrument. The soundtrack, with its machine-gun salvos of snare and uptempo jazz numbers, is also wonderful.
Whiplash is a brutal exercise in obsession, talent and determination. You’ll keep wondering how much Andrew will take before he snaps. He takes more abuse than I thought he would, but he does snap — everyone under Fletcher eventually does. After a big blow-up at a competition, the film shifts gears into something monumentally more powerful. As Andrew ponders his next step, he meets Fletcher again in a different environment and starts to see things from his point of view. This is where we hear the Charlie Parker story again. And it frames the last act of the movie, which is a triumph of epic proportions.
It ends with an ambush, a double-cross, a public execution, a retaliatory strike and a drum solo to end all drum solos. I’ve never had so many ups and downs in a film this year, or any from the past five. When it was over I had to catch my breath.