As a look into the mental toll and literal blood, sweat and tears that shape a musician for the ages, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort proves both insightful and riveting … if a little frightening. But if you’re looking for a great character study, you’ll likely be left cold with this chase for perfection.
Andrew’s talent catches the eye of the school’s most respected instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’) who is always looking for better members to join his Student Band and perhaps find the next once in a lifetime musician that needs that final push to greatness.
Fletcher is a visceral force of nature who considers words of affirmation development crippling. He’s a bullying tyrant that fully understands the power — and perhaps responsibility — of his position and abuses it thoroughly. Still, it’s hard to find much sympathy for the band members as they willingly subject themselves to Fletcher’s abuse and are overall pretty nasty little snots as well.
As the film progresses, it’s hard to find a likable character to latch onto as Andrew starts reflecting all the negative traits of his mentor. Chazelle introduces Melissa Benoist’s Nicole as an easily discarded love interest for Andrew to show the depth of his obsession. Andrew also appears to harbor some resentment toward his encouraging father (played by Paul Reiser), who never took his dreams of becoming a successful writer beyond teaching in high school.
Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay, provides Fletcher with an segment to explain the underlined truth behind his seemingly cruel behavior that will likely merit a re-evaluation of his status as the film’s villain. Simmons absolutely owns the role going from hardcore dictator of the Studio Band world to a crushed teacher upon learning the fate of a former student without missing a beat.
Fletcher may be crazy and a little unhinged, but Simmons ensures his personality switches aren’t just showy pieces for award consideration. Simmons’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar win was a foregone conclusion five minutes after he first arrives on screen.
Chazelle has little insight to offer to get the viewer into Andrew’s head and fully explore his passion and drive to be one of the all-time greats. Teller makes Andrew’s struggle the sole driving force in his life in his career best performance so far.
Chazelle struggles getting beyond the never-ending loop of Fletcher being the world’s most psychotic music instructor and Andrew doing everything he can to live up to his demands. The film is a brief 107 min., but it feels longer thanks to its repetitive structure and a final act that wears out its welcome long after the point has been made.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the soundtrack is spectacular and is so much a part of the film in a way that it becomes a character itself. Chazelle provides an outstanding POV of the intricate precise hand play and timing needed to man the drums. It certainly leaves you with a greater appreciation for what it takes to be a master-level drummer.
There’s an energy and liveliness in ‘Whiplash’ that’s undeniably spellbinding, but with a greater emphasis in the mindset of its main character’s journey to stardom it wouldn’t have felt nearly as hollow.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Pictures credit: Sony Pictures Classics