“Suffering for your art” films are certainly nothing new. Whether it’s dancing, singing, acting, or playing an instrument, it’s something we’ve seen time and time again. That being said, I can’t recall a film of this type off the top of my head that deals with the wild and energetic world of drumming. Luckily for us, writer/director Damien Chazelle is here to fill that gap with his drumming drama “Whiplash,” based on his short film of the same name.
The film follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a student at a prestigious New York conservatory of music, who has a talent for playing the drums. While practicing, he catches the attention of one of the conservatory’s most infamous conductors, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who comes to hear him play in the first-year class the next day. This leads to Andrew getting a shot at becoming a member of Fletcher’s studio band (the advanced class), but as he quickly comes to realize, Fletcher’s methods aren’t exactly standard. In fact, they’re downright brutal. However, Andrew is steadfast in his determination to be the best, meaning that whatever Fletcher dishes out, he’s willing to meet it head on.
Indeed, this type of film has been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be done well. “Whiplash” is a compelling film about pouring your heart and soul into your craft and trying to be the best at it that you can be. As a music-based film, there’s plenty of great pieces on the soundtrack that drive the film forward with high levels of energy, but what that applies even more to is J.K. Simmons’ brilliant, Oscar-winning performance as a conductor with extremely harsh methods for bringing out the best in a student. Without his boundless energy, the film wouldn’t be half as memorable as it is, nor would it be quite as believable. We’re supposed to believe that Andrew is being driven not only by his desire to be the best, but also by his hatred/respect for this teacher who’s pushing him to the limit. Simmons gives it everything he’s got, which results in one of the most memorable performances of the year.
I wish I could say the same of Miles Teller, who we’re supposed to buy as the tortured youth giving his all to his craft, but I’m still not convinced of his abilities as a leading man. He certainly does a convincing job on the drums (he has apparently been drumming since he was 15), but as for the rest of the film, he has a rather blasé presence, leaving behind little impact due to a lack of charisma. Another problem with the film comes in the form of a girlfriend subplot that just doesn’t fit into the story very well. Andrew builds up the courage to ask a young girl, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), out on a date, only to eventually dump her a little further into the film to devote himself entirely to his drumming. It’s awkwardly placed and just doesn’t feel believable at all. In fact, if it had been removed, the film would more than likely had been a little stronger for it.
Taking the good with the not-so-good, “Whiplash” still balances out to a fine film. I wouldn’t have rushed to give it a Best Picture nomination, but Simmons’ performance alone makes it worth checking out. Plus, you get a lot of great tunes along the way, and an epic drum solo at the end that just might leave you breathless. It may be another film in a long line of similar works before it, but like many of them, it ends up leaving a mark.
“Whiplash” makes its Blu-ray debut in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer that is, for the most part, very watchable. There is a noticeable fuzziness throughout the presentation, but it’s not enough to hinder your viewing in any way. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is phenomenal, giving you each and every piece of dialogue and beat of the drums in outstanding quality. Overall, while the video could have been sharpened a little more to prevent the slight fuzziness of the image, the film has been given pretty good treatment that ensures a fine experience.
Commentary with Writer/Director Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons: This seems like it would be a great commentary, but unfortunately these two don’t really discuss anything of interest, making this a rather bland track.
Timekeepers: An interesting featurette in which drummers discuss their craft, including how they got started in the first place.
Deleted Scene: A pointless 90-second scene that merely has Fletcher listening to music at home. Easily skippable.
Whiplash – The Original Short Film: The short film on which the feature is based is decent, but there’s not really anything here to see since the scene(s) were put right into the film almost word-for-word, with the only major difference being that the short has Johnny Simmons instead of Miles Teller.
An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival with Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller, and J.K. Simmons: This is a brief Q&A from TIFF that features a few interesting tidbits. Though it’s nothing particularly in-depth, it’s worth a look.
“Whiplash” rises on the strengths of a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance from J.K. Simmons and a great, high-energy soundtrack to complement it, turning what could have been a rather bland story of a determined drummer into something a little more memorable. Not all of the pieces work quite so well, but using the film’s key elements, Chazelle takes an oft-seen subgenre and makes it his own, right down to the final beat of the drum.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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