BY ANDY WESTON
At what point does passion become addiction?
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a student at one of the top music schools in the country. He has dreams of becoming one of the world’s greatest drummers. The path to his dreams leads him to Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school’s studio band.
Andrew is accepted into Fletcher’s band as a backup, but after putting in hard work and showing he has what it takes to move up, is placed in the starting position as the band’s drummer.
What sets Andrew’s experience, and the band itself, apart is Fletcher. He’s a demanding and harsh conductor who wants nothing short of perfection from his band. This is shown immediately when Andrew attends his first day of practice.
Fletcher approaches Andrew in the hall while they are on a break and asks questions about his family and background in what appears to be friendly banter. He tells Neimann not to worry too much and just have fun while he is in the class.
Once the band reconvenes, Neimann is tasked with playing a piece with the band. He is unable to get the tempo right. Fletcher tells him that it’s OK and to keep trying. As Neimann continues to either drag or rush with the tempo, Fletcher throws a chair at Neimann’s head and a switch is flipped in the character as Fletcher continues to berate Neimann using the personal information that was shared earlier to humiliate him. The audience understands Fletcher is a manipulator and willing to go to unreasonable depths to push his students.
But rather than give up and admit defeat, Neimann sets out on a path of borderline self-destruction in order to rise up to Fletcher’s insanely high standards.
Andrew starts practicing nearly non-stop. He sits in a practice room and works on his speed until his hands are raw and bleeding, then continues to practice through the injury. On top of physical damage, Andrew also shuts out any emotional connections. In order to continue with his insane practice regimen, he breaks up with his girlfriend, since he believes she will just be a distraction and hold him back.
It’s through these actions that it becomes more and more apparent that Andrew is an addict when it comes to his love of drumming. He’s willing to throw away personal relationships and his own health in order to feed his passion. It’s a continual downward spiral as he dedicates himself completely to his craft.
Throughout Neimann’s journey we see how someone’s passion can sometimes consume them. It’s at this point a person needs to step back and figure out if what they do for enjoyment and fulfillment should ever cross over into their competitive and professional lives. It’s a fine line to walk and can destroy someone who toes onto the wrong side.
Although the film may be short on plot, it is heavy on character depth. It could have easily sunk if the wrong actors had been cast in the lead roles, but luckily the opposite occurred.
Miles Teller has made a name for himself lately, starring in indie dramas and romantic films. He has a young John Cusack quality about him that helps to sell his likability in almost every role he’s done.
Here, he’s tasked with portraying a man on a downward spiral, as well as the ability to play the drums in a way that makes him look like he really could be the best in the world.
Teller is able to convey the talent and determination that fuels Andrew perfectly. There wasn’t a moment in the film that I didn’t feel for Andrew’s plight, and by the end of the movie, I believed he was capable of playing at Garden Center.
Meanwhile, the role of Fletcher is something that J.K. Simmons was born to play. He is brash, intimidating and unpredictable. He is able to make the viewer both hate and respect him. Fletcher is driven by his desire to find and mold the next great artist, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to bring that ability out of his students.
Simmons shows Fletcher’s unwavering determination to push his students when repeatedly delivering strings of profanity that could only be delivered by an actor in his element. But through all of the savagery, Fletcher still has a heart, and Simmons is able to present this through subtle moments where he can soften his voice, let tears form and show the tiniest bit of genuine emotion as it shines through Fletcher’s rough exterior. It takes a true talent to balance and humanize a character that could have easily been played as a one-dimensional villain.
None of the performances or story would have happened without Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer and director. Chazelle shows a lot of passion for arranged music and is able to translate it well into film.
Going into “Whiplash” I had little to no knowledge of this type of music, but throughout the film I grew to appreciate the sights and sounds of devoted people playing their instrument of choice. There is a clear love that Chazelle has for music, and it is on display here through the performances he captures and the characters he’s written.
“Whiplash” is a story about determination and the hard road one takes to achieve their ambitions. It can tear apart and destroy everything, but with the will-power and willingness to give everything to a craft, one may just be able to realize their goal.
But is there such a thing as pushing someone too far to be their best self? The only one who can really answer that is the individual being pushed.
“Whiplash” has been at the Fargo Theater this winter and comes out on DVD today.
That said, stop dragging and see “Whiplash.”