About every decade there’s a movie that comes along about the artistic underdog who triumphs over adversity. In the 1980s it was Flashdance with its tale of a welder/dancer making it into a prestigious dance school while romancing a handsome guy who supports her dream. The story was preposterous. Not that you could have a welder who was also a dancer. I had a friend who was both, and the film was roughly (very roughly) based on a real person. What was preposterous was that they could make it into the school without a monomaniacal dedication to their craft. Last year, Whiplash portrayed the reality of seeking to become the one of the best in a particular artistic field – in its case, drumming – and it won J.K. Simmons a well-deserved Oscar for best supporting actor. The independent film was in limited release so unless you were in a city with an arthouse theater, you probably didn’t get a chance to see it. Now it’s available on demand and video as well as on the Starz channel, and it is well worth a viewing.
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) plays Andrew, a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City who finds himself singled out for attention by Terrance Fletcher (Simmons), a prominent jazz musician who leads the school’s jazz studio band. Andrew is close to his father (Paul Reiser) with whom he attends revival arthouse films, and he awkwardly begins dating Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a concession girl at the theater. But while he’s a sweet kid, he also has a burning desire to become one of the greats in jazz drumming, on the level of Buddy Rich.
Fletcher may be his guide to that goal, but Andrew quickly learns that the teacher looks at instruction as a blood sport, a Darwinian competition where only the best survive. He’ll take any sign of weakness, any personal disclosure, and use it to hammer the student, and Fletcher isn’t above actual physical hammering either. Fletcher may be exactly what Andrew needs to push him into the stratosphere of the musical world, but there’s no guarantee he’ll survive the trip.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle conceived the film based on his experiences in a competitive jazz band in high school, though he turned up the intensity level to eleven. The script sat unproduced for a while, and was listed as one of the best unproduced scripts in 2012. (Another movie from last year that also received that notice was The Imitation Game.) In 2013 Chazelle made a short film out of fifteen pages of the script and showed it at Sundance. It was enough to get the full movie produced.
Simmons has been a ubiquitous supporting actor in TV and film. IMDb lists over 150 credits for him in the last twenty years. For sixteen years he was Dr. Emil Skoda, the psychologist for the prosecution on “Law and Order” while also spending six years as Vern Schillinger on the HBO prison series “Oz.” As Fletcher, Simmons is terrifyingly intense but also cunning. He’s like a tiger watching his prey. At times you might think he’s just a pussy cat, but he’s just waiting for you to drop your guard so he can pounce.
Miles Teller matches Simmons’s intensity and drive. In a sense the movie is like a boxing match with a talented neophyte going up against the cagey champion. It helps the reality of the movie that Teller is an experienced drummer and Simmons has a degree in conducting from the University of Montana, where his father was the director of the School of Music. You don’t have a Flashdance situation where you have Marine Jahan providing the dancing for Jennifer Beals. Late in the movie, when Fletcher is playing piano at a jazz bar, if you’re an experienced pianist you’ll see that Simmons has the fingering correct.
Besides the Supporting Actor Oscar for Simmons, who also won the Golden Globe and about every other award available for his performance, Whiplash took home Oscars for film editing and sound mixing, and was nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay. This movie is the anti-Flashdance, the one that tells you to be great you’ll have to bleed for your craft. In a way, it’s a breath of fresh air.