Review: Whiplash (Chazelle, 2013) – Sundance 2014

Courtesy of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival website

Courtesy of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival website

In Whiplash, a young drummer in a famous music conservatory pushes himself to become the best, enduring mental and physical abuse from his music teacher. After reading the synopsis in the festival program, I was reluctant to see this movie. I had no interest in drumming, nor another movie about what lengths people will go to in order to “make it.” Nevertheless, my husband and good friend convinced me it would be worth watching, so I dutifully stood in the waitlist line.

In spite of (or because of?) my low expectations, this movie ended up as a contender for one of my favorite narrative features at the festival this year, though it turns out my husband and friend didn’t like it quite as much as I did. While my friend praised J.K. Simmon‘s performance as the one noteworthy aspect of the film, even suggesting it was Oscar-worthy (and this from someone who watches well over a hundred movies a year), I thought that Miles Teller‘s acting held its own, maybe even exceeded Simmons’. J.K. (as the director and cast fondly call him) is certainly magnificent in his role as the chillingly cruel music teacher Terence Fletcher, but Teller’s character is much more varied and complex, and, when the chips are down, his intensity is a perfect complement to Simmons’.

Director Damien Chazelle confirmed that, as brutal as the character Terence Fletcher appears in the movie, the movie never intends to judge Fletcher’s teaching method. Indeed, the music teacher seems a well-rounded enough character–perfection-seeking, cruel, petty, ambitious, at times tender–despite his diabolicalness.

As for the drumming, I was never a jazz music enthusiast, not even an appreciator of drums in the indie rock I usually listen to, and the movie did not make me a convert. Nor was it attempting to. There were long drumming sequences, but they were never boring, pitched as they always were to the anxiety and desire of the characters.

There were many times toward the end of the movie that the fade-out to black made me think the movie was over, and every time that happened, I was a little disappointed because I felt that if the movie ended there, it would have been an unsatisfying and shallow exploration. It was the real ending then that clinched the movie for me, convinced me of its complexity. Also, as the climax, it was pretty exhilarating.

Interesting anecdote from the Q&A: The story was inspired by the writer-director’s music teacher at his performing arts-oriented high school, and he did indeed drum until his hands bled.

Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.