“The two most harmful words in the English language are good job,” spews Terence Fletcher to his former jazz pupil Andrew Nieman through scotch soaked lips as the two sit in a New York jazz club. The words are greeted by a naïve but understanding grin from Neiman. It’s meant to be an exposed moment for Fletcher who, for the better part of the last 70 minutes of the film Whiplash, from director Damien Chazelle, has been brutally using a well-honed set of skills to force the young music prodigy to submit before him.
Fletcher’s Jazz Ensemble instructor is played with full force by J.K. Simmons. Simmons is a veteran character actor, whose past roles on Law and Order, The Amazing Spiderman and various commercials result in a recognizable face would be hard to overcome if not for his years of experience. If ever there was a role of a lifetime made for someone, Fletcher is that for Simmons. Young and experienced Miles Teller (Divergent, Footloose) plays the young drumming prodigy Andrew Neiman.
Whiplash draws its inspiration from director Damien Chazelle’s own high school experiences and Simmon’s bullish and hyper-demanding jazz teacher, first fleshed out in a short film that screened at the 2013 Sundance film festival. It is a hyper-realized version of Chazelle’s experience with his own instructor.
Andrew Nieman is a young jazz percussionist with a single focus, to be remembered as one of the great jazz drummers in history. He attends the fictional Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. Hand-picked by Fletcher to be part of his jazz studio ensemble, Nieman is eager to showcase his talents with the best of the best at the school. Before the first rehearsal the eager percussionist receives a few words of encouragement from Fletcher in the hallway outside their classroom. Behind the closed studio door, Nieman is quickly introduced to Fletcher’s classroom demeanor. Fletcher bullies and intimidates his students when their performance doesn’t please his ear. He is a brute, with no hesitation to pick apart any weakness of performance in front of him. It is a brutal game of give and take between teacher and pupil throughout the film.
Nieman seems to separate himself from his fellow students at the beginning, not only with his willingness to learn, but his willingness to accept the abuse that Fletcher deals to him. In fact, he almost welcomes it, using it as more motivation to become better, to master his instrument.
Simmons’ Academy Award nomination for his performance is well warranted. He commands the screen as the abusive teacher. In even his most vile moments, there is a sense that his abusiveness is not without a reason and that saves his character. The surprise is that Teller’s name was left off major awards lists.
While there are small notes on Simmons performance, (it very much resembles the R. Lee Ermey character in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), Teller's performance is nearly perfect. Having the benefit a new young face, mixed with talent and heavyweight film experience already, he creates a character that is nearly impossible to normally communicate to an audience. Hyper-focused individuals usually leave a trail of bad history. It is hard for those that surround them to understand many of their life choices and choices in personal relationships, usually choosing their goals over those relationships. Teller successfully lets us into Neiman’s mind and lets us know why he makes the choices he does in his pursuits. When Neiman breaks up with his girlfriend, a sadly one-dimensional character played by Melissa Benoist, he is cold and logical, and we are there with him. In the real world he is an asshole.
The answer to much of Neiman’s willingness to accept the abuse from Fletcher, in search of greater accomplishments, can be found in Teller’s father Jim, played by Paul Reiser. The first words we hear out of Reiser’s mouth, as he sits in a movie theater with his son, as a stranger bumps into him are “I’m sorry.” During a meal with friends and family where Miles’s accomplishments are minimized in comparison to those of the two other young men at the table, Reiser’s character remains silent, letting his son fend for himself. A trait that, based on Neiman’s response, he is well practiced at. Reiser handles the role well. To the point that we needed more body to his character rather than just serving as a representative that doesn’t understand what it takes to be great.
Whiplash plays back and forth really well. You can feel the director’s hand, wanting his film to serve as a visual representation of a jazz ensemble. It pushes and pulls with force, loud and soft, fast and slow, in a way few films in recent memory have. A few moments stray off course, but never too far. At the heart are two of the most honest characters present on the screen in a number of years. After ninety minutes of a steady and confidant performance all of the pieces come together to create an explosive and memorable ending. The sheer weight of the main character’s desire will force its way onto any audience.
Wade Sellers is the Film Editor for Jasper Magazine and the executive director of Coal powered Filmworks.