- Whiplash (2014) movie review: Visually and aurally remarkable, Damien Chazelle’s psychological drama provides J.K. Simmons with a devil of a role.
- Whiplash won three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Film Editing, and Sound Mixing. It was also shortlisted in the Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay categories.
Whiplash movie review: Damien Chazelle delivers an emotionally explosive drama featuring a devilish J.K. Simmons
Damien Chazelle is a musical prodigy of sorts. He went to the sort of prestigious musical conservatory his protagonist – played by acerbic ascending star Miles Teller – attends in the sharply realized, emotionally explosive Whiplash, the writer-director’s 2014 Sundance Film Festival-winning second feature. Whiplash, in fact, is a most appropriate title.
The “insider’s” perspective can sometimes burden a young filmmaker – or a filmmaker of any age, really. Knowing too much can be a trap; the inclination to “get it right” down to the last well-known detail can muddy a story and stifle narrative flow. Besides, there’s the possibility – or rather, the likelihood – that the filmmaker’s personal experience is actually interesting only to the filmmaker him/herself. Chazelle, however, avoids these pitfalls.
While stylish and slightly elliptical, Whiplash is neither muddy nor stifling. It flows freely; it’s literally full of improvisations in at least two art forms. But like all good jazz, it always knows where it is and where it’s going.
Rather than worrying about detail and realism – though Whiplash is meticulous and feels remarkably natural – Chazelle is concerned with making a film that’s just really good. And really good it is.
As for the subject, only the low-achieving and tone deaf could possibly find uninteresting a movie as absorbing as Whiplash – which, as a plus, looks as good as it sounds (cinematography by Sharone Meir; music by Justin Hurwitz).
A freshman drummer at the prestigious (and fictional) Shaffer Conservatory, Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman listens to Buddy Rich records to cop his riffs while sharing drumming duties with a much less accomplished guy in the school’s number two band.
One day, the devil walks in and asks Andrew to play. Of course, it’s not really the devil; instead, it’s bandleader Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who, starkly lit and all dressed in black, just happens to look a lot like the devil. (Simmons, it should be noted, is best known for the HBO series Oz and for his long-running stint as the Farmers Insurance pitchman.)
Fletcher taps Andrew to be the “alternate” in the school’s premier band, which in fact just means acting as a page turner for the band’s core player. Then one day Andrew is asked to “take the chair,” as they say. All hell breaks loose, and here we conclude our devil metaphor.
‘Full Musical Jacket’
Now, consider this specific reference: R. Lee Ermey’s riveting, ball-crushing drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1987 Vietnam War epic Full Metal Jacket.
Transpose that performance – wholly and completely, language and all – onto J.K. Simmons’ ball-crushing music instructor and you will have the best reference from one performance to another that will ever be made. Ever.
Come to think of it, the whole war movie analogy is pretty much on the mark. But we shall stop here.
At what cost perfection?
As for Whiplash, simply put, its theme adds up to this: At what cost perfection?
In the context of Damien Chazelle’s densely woven story, the answer is also simple: Everything.
Direction & Screenplay.: Damien Chazelle.
Cast: Miles Teller. J.K. Simmons. Paul Reiser. Melissa Benoist. Austin Stowell. Damon Gupton. Jayson Blair. Max Kasch.
“Whiplash (2014) Movie Review” notes
Adapted or original screenplay?
Also titled Whiplash, the short was well received upon its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Short Film Jury Prize. That led to the financing of a feature from the complete screenplay.
Since (part of) the screenplay had already been “previously produced,” that explains why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to list Whiplash as a contender in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
“Whiplash Movie” endnotes
Among his awards season wins, J.K. Simmons was the Best Supporting Actor pick at the Golden Globes.
Mostly bypassed during awards season, Miles Teller was a Best Actor nominee at the Gotham Awards.
J.K. Simmons Whiplash movie image: Sony Pictures Classics.
“Whiplash Movie (2014) Review: Devilish Simmons” last updated in January 2022.