You’ve seen a version of this film before. But most likely what you saw wasn’t called Whiplash and wasn’t set in a music school. We’d have to go to Fame for that.
In 1973, it was called The Paper Chase. We’re at the Harvard Law School. John Houseman is Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. and Timothy Bottoms is James T. Hart, law student.
Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.: Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.
James T. Hart: [pause, as he is leaving the room] You… are a son of a bitch, Kingsfield!
Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.: Mr. Hart! That is the most intelligent thing you’ve said today. You may take your seat.
In 1988 it was called Stand and Deliver. Edward James Olmos as Jaime Escalante – a high school math teacher. Lou Diamond Phillips as Angel Guzman, a likely high school drop out. The subject is calculus.
Jaime Escalante: [to his students] … There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. *Math* is the great equalizer… When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is *ganas.* *Desire.*
But it isn’t always a teacher or a professor. Sometimes it is a Drill Sergeant.
Like in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. Richard Gere played Zack Mayo the struggling enlisted man. Louis Gossett Jr. played Sgt. Emil Foley; and won an Oscar for his performance.
Foley: Mayo, I want you D.O.R. [Drop on Request or in a single word – quit]
Mayo: No sir. You can kick me outta here, but I ain’t quitting.
Foley: Get into your fatigues, Mayo. By the end of this weekend, you’ll quit.
There are other films and other tough men, like Full Metal Jacket & R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, or The Karate Kid, or Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, or even Black Swan, that I could mention, but this list is lengthy enough, and more than makes the point that a forceful and dominating authority figure can provide enough motivation to even the most unwilling to get them to achievements that they likely had not even thought of.
In the film Whiplash, the authority figure is Terence Fletcher. He is an instructor at the NYC Schaefer Conservatory of Music aka ‘the best music school in the country’. J.K. Simmons has the role. Now if you know Simmons – you will usually think of him as the psychiatrist Dr. Emil Skoda on various Law & Order, the Farmers Insurance guy, or more recently as Mel Fisher, the blind attorney, and divorced father of two kids on the show Growing Up Fisher, which slots somewhere thematically rather than in a linear way as a modern update between The Wonder Years and Father Knows Best.
Forget about what you know about Simmons. This is the lean and mean Simmons. His Terence Fletcher is not The Maestro, instead think of him as The Master of the Mind Fuck. He easily makes Professor Kingsfield seem kindly.
He sees himself as the one guy who will push his students further than they’ve ever been pushed before. And if the temperature gets too hot for any of the students – they can pack up and the get the fuck out of his Studio Band.
When you are talking about Terence Fletcher, the word ‘inspirational’ should not enter your thoughts.
The student in the case is one Andrew Nieman played by Miles Teller who you may know from Divergent, and will come to know after this film. He’s an only son of a divorced Dad, played by Paul Reiser, and rather than wanting to be a superstar athlete, or an actor, he wants to be the world’s best drummer. His idol is the famed jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
Okay, now given the lead-in I wrote for this film, you may assume that I’ve offered you a clear-cut road map of what this film is about. In a sense, I have – but even with that fore-knowledge, you’re still going to be shocked at what you see. Fletcher is all about tearing some one down. He’s not about building them back up, or re-assembling the pieces or shards, and shaping them into a succesful musician.
He’s not above pitting one student against the other in this cut-throat environment. Nor will he stop at giving then taking it back. One moment you are the core drummer for the Studio Band, and the next – you’ve become either the alternate or the second alternate.
Now Andy or Andrew comes from a family of over-achievers. He’s struggling and he knows it. Unfortunately, Terence Fletcher knows it too, and what’s more he doesn’t care if you become one of his many musical road kills.
The film is highlighted in three ways – Andrew’s uphill struggle and drumming intensity, Fletcher counters that by being the master of intimidation, abuse, and insensitivity. Then there’s the almost thrilling virtuosity of how the film is edited. Despite the rapid fire teacher, teacher, teacher outbursts with an occasional student responses, this film is as much about reaching for the heights in the field of music as it is about reaching the heights in powerful film making.
Simmons and Teller will blow you away as they climb into their roles as if they were made to order suits. Be warned this is not a film for the tender-hearted, or the caring. This is not a film that you as a viewer will come out of unscathed. Simply it is searing, intense, visceral, and.nearly horrifyingly ferocious. By the way – this film is not for those young piano kids, or budding ballerinas in your homes. Adults only.
Or said more simply – it is a terrific film. The film won Audience Awards at Sundance, and Grand Jury Awards at Sundance and this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. As actor J.K. Simmons has stated – it’s winning over both the audiences and critics. I’m rating it four point two five, and recommending it. Writer and Director Damien Chazelle is not yet 30 years old. The Editor is Tom Cross who worked as an Assistant or Additional Editor on Crazy Heart and We Own the Night.
There’s one more amazing fact. This film was shot in just 19 days.
Check out the trailer.