What price greatness? That's the question at the heart of writer/director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, the story of an aspiring jazz drummer named Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) who must confront personal demons and an abusive mentor in his quest for musical immortality.
Neyman's story is not entirely fictional. Chazelle based it on his own experiences as drummer for an award-winning high school jazz band. Whiplash benefits from the director's understanding of the pressures associated with high achievement, but it's the film's own propulsive rhythms that set it apart from most music-centered movies. Chazelle's camera movements, editing and pacing all share a percussive quality that artfully reflects the role of the drummer in big-band jazz. Whiplash is crisp and viscerally engaging, which likely played no small part in its success at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Whiplash became the second film in a row (after last year's deserving but little-seen Fruitvale Station) to take both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance.
The film begins and ends with Neyman at the drum kit, where he pulls all-nighters or performs in fierce college-band competitions designed to reveal which musicians can earn major professional careers. Everyone involved knows it's a game with far more losers than winners, and that's where the stress and personal sacrifice come in. It's a musical domain that contrasts almost comically with that of New Orleans. There's no shortage of competition for gigs, prestige and street cred among our city's players, and many musicians work very hard just for the chance to scratch out a living. But the harsh world of Whiplash is a far cry from the relatively collegial one in which most New Orleans artists dwell.
Whiplash is largely a two-man show. Neyman quickly works his way up to the fictional Shaffer Conservatory's top jazz band, where he comes up against the iron baton of unforgiving conductor Terence Fletcher (familiar-faced character actor J.K. Simmons). Neyman is the kid consumed by visions of greatness, and Fletcher embodies the seasoned veteran instructor who lives to identify and mold the few who fit that bill. Everything that happens between them is a test of one kind or another.
During its film festival run, Whiplash often was compared to a sports movie. Fletcher's temper and questionable methods recall real-life football and basketball coaches who've recently found themselves on forced sabbatical from college athletics. Both Teller and Simmons breathe life into their characters, but Simmons' huge presence and bristling intensity may earn him a string of awards and accolades at year's end.
The film also raises timely questions regarding how much is too much when it comes to the pursuit of success, especially in an academic setting. Few parents are willing to abide verbal and physical abuse of their kids, no matter what the potential long-term rewards. The events depicted in Whiplash correlate not only to college and professional sports but to any competitive field of endeavor — which is just about every field in today's zero-sum world. What price greatness, indeed.