I’m late to the party on this one, awards season is over, and “Whiplash” has already been recognized as one of the best films of 2014. Damien Chazelle’s passion project focuses on a drummer, Miles Teller, attending a prestigious music school, who is pushed to his limits by his sadistic teacher, J.K. Simmons. Chazelle deserves all the credit in the world for turning what could have been an otherwise boring plot into an intense ride that felt more like a thriller than a drama.
For most of its runtime, the movie sprints forward at a lightning pace, yet it knows exactly when to slow down and allow the audience to catch their breath. A big part of what makes this successful is the editing. The quick cuts and whip pans help make the musical sequences flow like fight scenes in an action movie. There are long periods where nothing is happening but musicians playing their instruments, however the barrage of images keeps the audience locked in.
It also doesn’t hurt that the acting is all around phenomenal. J.K. Simmons is mesmerizing and delivers his profanity laden tirades as if they were Shakespearean monologues. Whereas other actors may have taken this character to a place that felt cartoony, Simmons keeps it perfectly in tune with the tone of the movie: maintaining a creepy, almost maniacal, feel.
Yet even so, the standout of this movie is Miles Teller. I’ve never been particularly impressed with him. He’s been serviceable in some roles and then flat out terrible in others. However, this single performance has caused me to do a complete 180 degree turn on the way I view him. He’s terrific. Anyone who has ever put in hard work to achieve their goals can empathize with his character. His actions seem genuine and his emotions, real. We see him go from someone who is afraid to express himself, for fear of rejection, to someone who confidently shows what he is passionate about with complete disregard for others’ judgments.
The rest of the characters are largely unmemorable which is exactly what the movie calls for. Nobody takes the spotlight away from Teller, Simmons, and their relationship with one another.
Perhaps the film’s strongest point is its soundtrack. Combined with the editing and cinematography, the music in this movie is shown in a completely original light. It almost feels like the music is a character, and you can’t wait for it to come back on screen. Starting from the class’s very first practice and culminating in Teller’s final, climactic performance, the movie is all about the music. Even if the other aspects of the movie weren’t as strong, anybody who likes quality music would still enjoy a majority of “Whiplash” because of how beautiful the soundtrack is.
Very rarely does a director have such a firm grasp on so many different components of film making so early in their career, but Chazelle seems to be the complete package. The way he is able to take cinematography, editing, and the soundtrack and make them complement one another so perfectly is a pleasure to witness. Not only that, but he is able to get the very best out of his actors. “Whiplash” is nearly flawless, with its only real shortcoming being it’s inherently uneventful plot, but with Chazelle at the helm, and Simmons and Teller on board, this fast paced drama as thrilling as the best action movies. It definitely deserves any awards that have come its way.