January 27, 2014



Damien Chazelle’s powerhouse WHIPLASH is about the pursuit of not just excellence, but perfection, and on its own deliberately limited terms it doesn’t land far from that mark.  Whiplash won both the Grand Jury and the Audience prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (only the 5th time that’s happened), and for all intents and purposes there was no second place–Chazelle’s movie debuted on the festival’s opening night and nothing ever came along to seriously challenge it.  Sony Pictures Classics snapped it up for a $2.5M pricetag that could turn out to be the bargain of the year.

You can think of Whiplash as The Karate Kid meets Full Metal Jacket, but with a jazz beat.  It’s set in the outwardly peaceful world of a New York music conservatory, known as the best in the country, where Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer.  His brutal Mr. Miyagi is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who conducts and teaches the school’s signature jazz group.  They win prizes wherever they compete, their prestige so high that just being a member puts the young musicians in line for the best professional gigs in the business.  Andrew is thrilled and proud to be accepted by such a demanding figure.

The price he and the rest of the group pay, however, is to be psychologically (and sometimes physically) manipulated and abused–some might say tortured–by their teacher.  Despite the musical setting, the character of Fletcher seems to be inspired not just by drill sergeants but by the recent stories of college sports coaches who torment their students.  Homophobic taunts are his specialty, but he can lace into the young men (there are no women in his group) for their religion, nationality, or just their plain stupidity and lack of talent.  He’s far beyond uncompromising–he’s obsessed, perhaps psychotic.  His chosen target–or is it protege?–is Andrew, who worships and loathes his tutor.

These are two gigantic parts for actors, because even though other characters appear in Whiplash (apart from the rest of the band, Paul Reiser is Andrew’s dad, caring but unable to compete with the hold Fletcher has over his son; and Melissa Benoist of Glee is briefly on screen as Andrew’s girlfriend), the script is fundamentally built on the two of them.  Getting a role like this, like being picked for a prestigious musical group, is both a gift and a challenge.  It’s not much of a surprise that Simmons is phenomenal–he’s one of the best and busiest character actors in the business, with seemingly unlimited range.  Rarely in his long career, though, has he gotten to play a part he could grip with both hands like Terence Fletcher, and he does a stunning job of capturing both the man’s uncontrollable rage and his ruthless detachment; there might even be a hint of humanity in the monster, although it’s well hidden.  Teller, however, is Whiplash‘s revelation.  He was very good in last year’s The Spectacular Now, but in the way of young Hollywood actors, he’s had to spend his time in things like Project X and 21 and Over.  His Andrew is a brilliant, unformed mess of obsession, arrogance, terror, vulnerability, and some madness of his own–and he has crack comic timing to spare.  (His putdown of an athlete cousin got the single biggest laugh of the entire festival–a festival notable for the number of full-on comedies it featured.)

Whiplash is utterly riveting from beginning to end, and Chazelle’s filmmaking skills are prodigious for a second-time feature director.  (His previous Guy and Madeleine On a Park Bench was a strenuously oddball chamber hipster musical that never got out of art houses).  His concept of shifting the brutality and passion we associate with soldiering and its civilized substitute, sports, and placing it in the rarefied setting of concert-hall music, was inspired, and Chazelle realizes it just about flawlessly.  Apart from his script and the acting, there’s rich, elegant photography by Sharone Meir that completely belies the “indie” label, and a fantastic pace executed by editor Tom Cross with, as one would expect, an especially stunning mix of images with music.

There are small cavils one can have with Whiplash.  At times its tightly drawn structural lines feel artificial; we never even discover what instrument Fletcher himself plays until nearly the end, and it’s unbelievable in the extreme that Andrew wouldn’t have Googled Fletcher and found out every detail about his life.  Then there’s its conclusion–not as a piece of filmmaking, which is pretty spectacular, but in terms of what Chazelle’s film finally seems to be saying.  It’s difficult to discuss without entering into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the question hanging over all of Whiplash is whether there is, ultimately, a method to Fletcher’s madness–whether, in the end, his awful, escalating abuse of Andrew and the pain it causes is justified by the result.  The final sequence of Whiplash answers that question perhaps too unambiguously; it’s one of the very few times at Sundance where I might have been more satisfied by a typical indie non-ending ending.

That question is worthy of discussion, but it certainly doesn’t affect whether Whiplash should be seen.  It’s a triumphant piece of work, one even the martinet it depicts might–reluctantly–find satisfying.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."