Whiplash tells compelling story of musical ambition

As the son and father of musicians, I have spent my life surrounded by the sounds they create and the challenges they face. From an early age, a musician juggles time and ego to be ready when opportunities surface. And they learn how to take pressure in stride. Cool is everything in the music world.

In Damien Chazelle’s dynamic Whiplash, Andrew is a teenager who tries to cope with his musical ambitions. He knows, no matter how strong a drummer he may be, that being good may not be good enough at the exclusive music school he enters. That’s because Fletcher, a jazz instructor with a reputation of bullying students, looks for more than ability as he selects tomorrow’s stars. This master of music searches the souls of his players to discover brilliance and drive.

Nothing in Andrew’s background prepares him for this roller-coaster ride. Ultimately, he must ask himself if his ego is strong enough to withstand the emotional demands of his instructor. Whiplash asks us how far a teacher should go to inspire a student, if a student should push back if a teacher says or does too much, or if the student — determined to progress — must realize that days can get tough. Director Chazelle carefully builds his musical world by layering the sounds, visuals and characters to capture the intensity of Andrew’s compulsion to reach perfection. The director reveals how, while no one is watching, ambition can become as commanding as any addiction, especially in a competitive environment with visible rewards.

“The movie is as much about teachers, and the influence they have, as it is about music,” said actor J.K. Simmons, who plays Fletcher, in a question-and-answer session following the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival. “As an actor, it was deeply moving to work with so many actual musicians on the set as we recorded the musical sequences live. Together we hope to bring attention to the importance of the teaching profession to shape young lives.”

For parents, some moments in Whiplash may be difficult to absorb. None of us want to imagine a teacher being so tough with students. But Fletcher’s intent is so compellingly created by Simmons — and Andrew’s reactions so perfectly captured by Miles Teller — that we are immediately absorbed by this wondrous world of ego, drive and achievement. Director Chazelle so carefully times the rhythmic peaks and valleys of this thrill ride that we barely have a chance to breathe before a new surge begins. Without over-simplifying the material, he makes the music world accessible to anyone; without patronizing the players, the director pays respect to the dedication that musicians must bring to the daily rehearsal routine.

For Simmons, Whiplash offers the chance to play a fascinating character with flaws as commanding as his strengths. Without apologizing for the teacher’s weaknesses, Simmons bravely reveals the soul of a man who tries to cover what he feels. This marvelous actor — so memorable in Juno on film and Growing Up Fisher on television — turns the role into a thriving portrayal of complexity, drive and, at moments, real heart. But Simmons never forgets that the teacher, at his core, is a driven musician who can’t afford, at any cost, to lose the beat. His brilliant work is matched by Teller’s sensitive approach to Andrew. No matter what the character may experience, he never lets the character become an object of pity. Teller makes us believe this young man will ultimately succeed.

As parents, we do everything we can to protect our children. Sometimes the cruelties of the world bring them closer to earth than we anticipate. Whiplash reminds us that, when our kids hit the ground, those shock absorbers we help them develop will come in handy.

Whiplash is rated R for strong language including some sexual references. The film runs 106 minutes.

Five Popcorn Buckets