No spoilers ahead.
Trailer for the unaware:
Whelp, with Whiplash, we may have to close up shop, folks. Time to call it a day. I find it hard to believe the rest of the Best Picture films I have to trek through will be able to top the intensity, the tightness of the script and the raw realism of the two lead performances in this film. After I finished it last night, I breathed out a hardy, “Fuuuuuuuck.” And then a PG version, “Woooooooooow.” To use a a cliche, it “blew me away.”
As the trailer indicates, it’s a story about a man, some would say determined, others obsessed or crazed, to become the best jazz drummer in the world. In his path is a band instructor played by the unbelievably great J.K. Simmons (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), who himself is a bit…determined some would, batshit crazy, others would say, to find the next great jazz drummer (or player in general). His methods would certainly leave many aghast that he still has a job. Or that anyone would want to be in his band in the first place.
The jazz drummer is played by Miles Teller in an intense, sweaty, bloody, tear-filled, dreamy-eyed, steeliness. It’s a — to use another cliche — a miscarriage of justice that he didn’t squeak into the Best Actor category. I mean, goddamn. This is a performance. This is art. I forgot the dude was a fucking actor. I totally bought in. As I said, opposite him is J.K. Simmons and I just want to focus on him for a moment. The dude has such a physical presence throughout the movie. Sure, I mean that in relation to how he makes you cower even though you’re safely in your bed under the covers or how tense and anxious he makes you, as a viewer with his tirades and below-the-belt insults. But, it’s literally him. His look. I found him fascinating to just look at: The lines that etch his face and his bald head, to his arms and biceps which are old now, but still have that, I could take you in a boxing match look, and the all black attire. He’s just a sight in and of itself without any of the raw acting that comes with it.
I mean, fuck, man, how far are we willing to go for our dream? Sure, sure, we can talk about the literal physical manifestations of striving for our dream: the aforementioned holy trinity of “blood, sweat and tears,” but what about our sanity? Is there such a thing as too far? Is there a line? Is it worth shutting everything else out in the pursuit of that dream, which is by its nature selfish (relationships with others, mainly)? Conversely, what about the person trying to guide or teach the next great musician (or whatever it is)? In other words, where’s the line between trying to push greatness so it’s not subdued early by self-limitations (i.e.: we all think we can only go this far, but in reality, we can go THIS far) versus pushing it too far, as a teacher, where greatness is squelched not by self-limitation, but by the mistreatment and repeated failure to live up to expectations?
All questions the film raises and tackles, but doesn’t ham-fist into our head of what we should think.
It’s a fascinating interplay embodied by the above picture of Teller and Simmons eye to eye. Teacher and student. Both undoubtedly love and respect the craft. Are they willing to leave their carcasses on the altar of it? And let’s give credit to the brilliant directing of Damien Chazelle, again, robbed of a Best Director nomination. His film is tightly crafted, utterly tense throughout, sleek and builds to one of the most satisfying film conclusions in some time.
Chasing a dream seems like madness since most of us don’t deviate toward that path. It especially seems like madness to the one without dreams or the one unable or unwilling to go for it. Maybe in some sense, it’s a good thing. I don’t know, but damn is this a great movie. Highly recommended, folks.