Original US release date: October 10, 2014
Production budget: $3,3000,000
Worldwide gross: $48,982,041
We all saw Damien Chazelle and his most recent film La La Land clean up at this past Sunday’s Academy Awards (though no Best Picture, despite a brutal tease). That makes it a good time to look back on Chazelle’s previous classic, Whiplash. Telling the story of Andrew Niemann, an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller), and his relationship with his hard-nosed music instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash caught the attention of the entire industry and was nominated for five Academy Awards (winning three of them), including Best Picture. This was the film that put director-writer Damien Chazelle on the map before La La Land took mainstream audiences by storm.
Quite frankly, this is the film that should have done that. I absolutely loved La La Land, but Whiplash stands on equal footing and, in some ways, towers above the current cinematic darling. There is no weak component to this film, but its most powerful has to be its performances – especially that of J.K. Simmons. Simmons simply gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. Many people will point to the moments of extreme emotion as evidence of that claim, but those are not what won me over. We see that kind of thing rather frequently. True, high-quality acting is in the small moments. And Simmons owns them all. Even when Fletcher isn’t speaking, you can read his thoughts because Simmons has perfected physical acting. His facial expressions, posture, and body language say all that needs to be said so that, when he finally does lend voice to his inner dialogue, it lands with the force of Godzilla riding a hydrogen bomb.
In any other film, Miles Teller would have been the standout with his turn as rising drummer Andrew. Andrew isn’t satisfied with being good. He’s not satisfied with being great. He wants to be the greatest of all-time. And he doesn’t want that to be the case in his own eyes. He doesn’t want it to be in his family’s eyes. No, he wants it to be in the eyes of the entire world. And he’ll do whatever he must to reach that pinnacle. Teller truly comes of age as an actor in this film, demanding that he be taken seriously. It’s a fascinating parallel to his Andrew character as well as to Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher. Just as Andrew and Fletcher challenge each other in an epic battle of wills that runs throughout the entire film, so do Teller and Simmons continually battle it out in a compelling game of Top This. Simmons ultimately squeaks out the victory due to his experience, but it’s not a dominating win. And if anyone were to attempt to convince me that Teller doesn’t have what it takes to one day be the best in the business, I would just point them to this performance.
A stellar supporting cast backs up the two leads with precision and excellence. Paul Reiser deftly inhabits the role of Andrew’s father Jim. Jim loves his son, but never fully understands him or his aspirations, seeing Andrew’s drumming as an inconsequential hobby. Reiser communicates this well, as the viewer wants to like Jim but becomes inevitably frustrated and annoyed with him as he seems perpetually clueless as to who his son truly is. A pre-Supergirl Melissa Benoist is Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole, a sweet and caring girl who Andrew sees as a complacent underachiever. And the rest of the band each make the most of any screen time they get, communicating deep thoughts and emotions through little more than facial expressions and some of the most intense, telling glares I can ever recall witnessing.
There is no frame of this film that isn’t telling a story. There’s not a visual effect to be found in the entire movie (that I picked up on, at least) but the band rehearsal scenes are every bit as harrowing as the most exciting blockbuster action set piece. My heart pounded, my blood pressure increased, and my breathing labored as the heat in these scenes elevated until it felt as though it might be impossible to take any more. And I had seen the movie several times, before!
Whiplash is an Oscar-winning think-piece of a drama that has the same effect on the audience and the body that a movie such as Jurassic World or The Force Awakens has, including a spectacular closing sequence that will make you want to jump up and shout at its conclusion. The film is an escalating adrenaline rush that deserves to be seen by all. When the closing credits began to roll, I shouted, “Damn, what a movie!” to an empty room and felt no regrets. This is what great filmmaking is all about and Whiplash deserves to be shouted over. Damien Chazelle now has two films of which he can be very proud. It’s absurdly obvious that he is a true artist and I’m excited to see what he does with his next film, First Man, which is a biography about the life of Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling. Whatever his career eventually becomes, it all started in earnest with Whiplash. If you purport to be a film lover, you owe it to yourself to indulge in this work of pure perfection.
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