“Is perfection worth any price?” is the primary question posed by Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” the rare Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner that fully lives up to the mountain air hype. Set at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, a Juiliard-esque Manhattan breeding ground for instrumental wunderkinds, the film follows drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) as he is berated and abused into rhythmic precision by Professor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), leader of the institution’s honors jazz band. You may have had difficult teachers throughout your schooling—and you may notice certain pieces of them in this man—but Fletcher takes pedagogical assholery to a whole new level, incorporating a steady flow of homophobic slurs and malicious threats into his compulsive, repeat-the-beat-until-it’s-perfect style of instruction. There is no doubt that Fletcher gets results, but as Andrew’s fingers spew blood after he practices for hours—the ultimate physical manifestation of Andrew’s desire to avoid his elder’s wrath—one wonders if results should really be the sole objective of any education.
This is not to say that “Whiplash” is some kind of allegory about the merits of standardized testing, but rather, that it is deeply invested in interrogating conventional notions of academic success, both for students and for teachers. Subverting conventional “inspirational teacher” tropes, the film problematizes Fletcher’s methods and questions whether a teacher who guides a student to mastery of the course material can still be a bad teacher. In other words, can capitalistic metrics of success be directly applied to an academic setting—especially one in which the objective is careerist, as in a music conservatory—or does a teacher have an obligation to encourage and to inspire his/her students? And at what point should the student be able to reject the teacher’s approach? Of course, writer/director Chazelle raises these questions through a heightened environment and with a healthy degree of cinematic hyperbole—it is unlikely that Fletcher would have been able to go on verbally abusing students like this for so long in the real world—but they carry broad applicability.
This all being said, “Whiplash” does not play like a highly cerebral movie, thriving on the emotional rawness of Teller’s lead performance and his interplay with Simmons. In fact, few films have captured the pressures of being a collegiate-aged male—the desire to prove oneself out in the world without (m)any formal accomplishments under one’s belt—as well as this one, largely thanks to the acting. Teller endows Andrew’s private anguish, marked by an equal loathing of Fletcher’s heinous methods and yearning to beat Fletcher at his own game, with a gripping immediacy in his agitated gestures and labored groans. Even in the scenes that do not involve drum-playing—meeting Dad for weekly catch-ups at the movies, taking a girl on a pizza date—Teller’s eyes capture the way Andrew’s mind invariably drifts to Fletcher. This consuming focus comes to a head when he plays for Fletcher, who perennially finds something wrong with his work. Actor Simmons can be downright terrifying in these moments, in both the imposing manner in which he hovers over his musicians and the forthrightness with which he screams. We learn very little about this character’s private life, and our lack of understanding of Fletcher’s motivations allows Simmons to fully exploit his threateningly unpredictable nature.
But the miracle—and perhaps the central conundrum—of “Whiplash” is the beautiful music that emerges from this ugly creative process. As tortured as the characters may be, the performance sequences do not lose any of their sonic pleasure by dent of the viewer’s knowledge of the human cost of producing them; this is a soundtrack you’ll want to purchase for standalone listening. Further probing such a contradiction, the film’s final sequence (which I dare not spoil), raises the question of whether improvisation—that cornerstone of the most sublime jazz pieces—is possible without a regimented, rigorous structure underlying it. This question has clearly proven imperative for Chazelle in his own artistic process, as the authentic emotional eruptions of “Whiplash” are coupled with masterful formal precision. The editing and shot construction of the film’s final sequence, seemingly inspired by Fernand Léger’s 1924 pure cinema staple Ballet Mécanique, make for the most transcendent cinematic experience of the year. The cost of perfection may often be higher than what is worth paying, but this truth does not make perfection itself any less exhilarating.