Another year’s Academy Awards have come and gone, with “Birdman” taking the award for Best Picture this year. “Birdman” is one of the greatest films in an unusually high-caliber crop of nominees for this year. The award could have gone to a number of them, and I would have accepted happily.
Nonetheless, I would like to spotlight a particular nominee for high praise: Director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.”
“Whiplash” is a story of dedication, obsession, ridicule and the difficulty of finding the line between these. It stars Miles Teller (who will take up the role of Reed Richards in the “Fantastic Four” reboot scheduled for August) as a jazz drummer and first-year student at a prestigious music school. Teller’s character, Andrew Neiman, has aspired from a young age to be one of the all-time great jazz performers like his hero, Buddy Rich.
So when conductor Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons, whom you might know as J. Jonah Jameson from “Spider-Man”) stumbles upon Neiman and invites him into his studio band as an alternate, Neiman jumps at the chance.
Yet if Neiman expected a cakewalk, he is quickly disabused of this notion. Fletcher has a violent temper; when his students mess up in the slightest way, he hurls insults and verbal abuse (and sometimes chairs) their way. He pits every section member against eachother, quickly taking away privileged positions from his students at the sign of any screw-up.
In a key scene, Neiman and two other drummers spend hours performing a single part from a piece until one of them gets the tempo exactly right. When Neiman finally achieves this, Fletcher announces, “Neiman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drum set?”
Blood plays an important role in the visual iconography of the film. Blood is the cost of becoming a great performer, though it’s far from the only cost. Throughout the film, Neiman feels he must leave everything behind (like his girlfriend) in order to ceaselessly dedicate himself to impressing his never-impressed conductor.
That’s because in Fletcher’s mind, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” The lost blood is a metaphor for pain in pursuit of perfection.
Is the cost worth it? It probably depends on the person you ask. There’s little room for doubt that Fletcher is a vindictive, abusive person. But viewers will have to weigh the process and outcome for themselves by seeing the film, which left me asking myself questions I had never considered.
I can’t recommend “Whiplash” enough. It was a worthy nominee for Best Picture in an already crowded field. J.K. Simmons in particular gave a memorable performance rife with intensely personal drama, and his Best Supporting Actor win was well-deserved. By seeing “Whiplash,” you’ll be treating yourselves to one of the year’s finest films.