'Whiplash': The Pursuit of Power Has Never Looked So Good

With energy, talent and wisdom, Damien Chazelle’s film embodies a theme central to American cinema.

Whiplash Written and directed by Damian Chazelle; with Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Acommanding officer and a soldier, a coach and an athlete, a college or high school teacher and a student – the bond of authority and tyranny, submission and humiliation that can develop within such pairs on the way to bringing out the hidden abilities of the soldier, student or athlete has been to subject of many films. To those we should add the numerous other movies that have described relationships between a veteran professional and an inexperienced newcomer. This cinematic corpus now also includes “Whiplash,” the second film of 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, who sets this typically extreme and even cruel showdown within the elite Shaffer Conservatory, supposedly America’s top music school (an allusion, apparently, to Juilliard).

The hero of “Whiplash” is a Jewish 19-year-old named Andrew (Miles Teller), who is accepted into the school’s jazz department. One of the prominent jazz teachers (we never see any of the others) is Fletcher, who is also the conductor of the student orchestra. After Fletcher sees Andrew – whose love of jazz drumming borders on obsession – practicing alone at school at night, he adds him to the orchestra. Fletcher is played by J. K. Simmons, one of the busiest actors in American film and television, perhaps best remembered for his role as the ultimate psychopath in “Oz” and the mild-mannered police chief in “The Closer.”

Simmons is one of those actors who seem capable of embodying every point on the human spectrum. “Whiplash” is based on a short film Chazelle made in 2013, also with Simmons; with his taut, black-clad body and bald head, his Fletcher is a palpably forceful, intimidating man. These qualities, however, come with enough human and emotional ambivalence attached to them to save Fletcher from being a stereotypical sadistic despot, even as he spouts racial and sexual epithets and even attacks his students physically – all in order to bring out their highest musical abilities. It is a virtuoso performance that leaves the spectator spellbound; we can almost feel the control he has over his students on our own flesh (there’s almost nothing more frightening than the clenched fist with which Fletcher halts his students when their playing displeases him, a cruel smile spreading across his face).

Miles Teller – whom I have seen in several other roles that did not impress me very much – is just as good. He communicates with great subtlety Andrew’s vulnerability and, even more than that, his ambivalence toward Fletcher: He fights the teacher, but also submits to him as though recognizing somehow that Fletcher’s brutal method may be what a jazz musician needs in order to exploit his talent to the fullest. To some extent, Andrew and Fletcher are similar, and Fletcher recognizes this kinship and exploits it; they are both obsessive, though in Fletcher’s case this quality manifests itself as aggression and domination, whereas in Andrew it is still somewhat childish.

“Whiplash” is not really a movie about jazz, although it might be argued that its structure and style are jazz-like; and it is not really a movie about art, either. Its main theme is the pursuit of power and excellence, the struggle against that pursuit and the submission to it that leads – or does it? – to the highest of achievements. Chazelle takes a familiar formula and gives it an almost free-form adaptation that exposes the formula itself and its symbolic components. His only mistake is that while we know nothing about Fletcher’s private life and career path, the movie does give Andrew another, opposite father figure: His real father (Paul Reiser), is a writer who gave up his art to become a high school teacher, and is therefore considered a failure. Here the formula is just a formula, and its agenda is obvious and unnecessary.

“Whiplash” is cinema as a duel, fought not in an army barracks or an athletic training camp but in the room where the orchestra rehearses its jazz numbers. Chazelle allows these tunes (especially Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” which gives the movie its meaning-laden name, and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”) considerable screen time. In these scenes, the passion continuously rises; it assaults us, pulls us in, thrills us. This is a movie that romanticizes its subject matter, of course, but Chazelle stops it from slipping into banality, especially thanks to the abstract nature of the film, which keeps the didacticism at bay. “Whiplash” seems like an attempt to crystallize one of the central motifs of American cinema – the relationship between two men, a veteran and a novice, a controller and a subordinate – and does so with an energy that suggests both talent and wisdom. I’ve never seen Chazelle’s first feature, the 2009 “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” but “Whiplash” certainly points to the appearance of a promising new talent on the American filmmaking scene.