Jazz is not dead, and if one person is trying to keep the genre alive in Hollywood, it’s Damien Chazelle. Before the Oscar-winning director made his love letter to jazz and dreamers in La La Land, Chazelle explored the treacherous and often difficult pursuit of success in his gritty drama, Whiplash. Based on Chazelle’s short film, Whiplash, now on Hulu, examines the competitive world of music through the eyes of a young, ambitious drummer named Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).
Andrew is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. As an aspiring jazz drummer, Andrew dreams of becoming a great musician like his hero, Buddy Rich. While at Shaffer, Andrew catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the conservatory’s prestigious studio band. Fletcher recruits Andrew to join the band. Those are the last calm moments of the film because once Andrew attends the first practice, Whiplash becomes an intense, psychological drama between a determined student and a ruthless teacher.
It is uncomfortable to witness some of the interactions between Andrew and Fletcher. When Fletcher does not appreciate Andrew’s tempo, he hurls a chair at his head. “Are you rushing or are you dragging,” Fletcher asks as he slaps Andrew in the face, threatening to screw him like a pig if he sabotages “his band.” Those are real slaps, too. Whiplash doesn’t work if Teller or Simmons don’t go all-in with their performances. Teller must go from a wide-eyed dreamer to a single-minded musician by the end of the first practice, and Simmons must be relentless and abusive in his quest to push Andrew past the point of no return.
Teller’s performance in Whiplash is why many, including myself, believe he can be a true movie star. From his looks and physical abilities to his determination and on-screen presence, Teller has the “it” factor, and Top Gun: Maverick further proved that. As good as Teller is, Simmons gives one of the 10 most iconic performances of the 21st century. Simmons’ portrayal of a villain makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look like a good guy. Simmons won practically every award that season, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Fletcher is a scary, abusive monster, a far cry from the real-life Simmons, who gave a heartfelt acceptance speech after winning the Oscar.
Whiplash might be a musical drama, but it’s a sports movie at its core. Whiplash includes all the sports movie clichés with a musical twist. The cocky upstart who thinks he’s good, but it’s not until he pushes himself that he learns what it takes to be great. The cruel coach does not get along with his star player. The coach doesn’t believe in his star player’s talents. The star player’s abilities are doubted by his loved ones, forcing him to silence his critics and rise above the adversity.
Substitute the star player for Andrew and the coach for Fletcher, and Whiplash is a sports movie. Whiplash builds to one final performance where Andrew must overcome the odds and win over Fletcher. It’s the same concept in a sports movie like Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed for the championship or the Permian Panthers playing Dallas Carter in the state title in Friday Night Lights.
What is the price of greatness? What does it take to be the best at something? Fletcher explains to Andrew that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” It’s harsh and true. Fletcher crosses the line many times, but Andrew never gives up.
It doesn’t come without a price. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend and shuts out his family to practice. Andrew drums so hard that it causes his knuckles to bleed. There has never been a great performer, athlete, or writer who gave the bare minimum amount of effort to succeed. From Michael Jordan to Steve Jobs, they all made sacrifices and worked countless hours to succeed. Andrew may never be the next Buddy Rich, but he’ll never stop trying, a price to pay to be great.
Whiplash leaves Hulu on September 30, so stream it before it’s too late.