Not a Beat Out of Place: A Review of WHIPLASH

This is a post by Ian Beavers, contributing writer and filmmaker from LA. 

J.K. Simmons (left) and Miles Teller (right).

Though not at the Austin Film Festival, WHIPLASH was released just last week in Denver and is playing exclusively at the Mayan Theatre on Broadway. 

I have an admission to make: I was a high school band kid. Please don’t judge me too harshly… We are, generally, a good people. Band meant a great deal to me during my high school career, so much so that I self-identified as a band geek when social circles came into play. It built within me a great love of music and art of all kinds, and is a major part of my so-called “origins story.”

Why am I taking this trip down memory lane at the very beginning of a movie review? Besides the obvious, admittedly selfish indulgence in nostalgia, I’m hoping to provide a little context in my rating of Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH, a film that has left me both infatuated and filled with self-doubt.

WHIPLASH follows Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a young drummer with vast potential, as he begins his stint at a world-renowned music conservatory. Very early on in this stage of his education, Andrew is discovered and ultimately challenged by a personal idol of sorts; Conductor Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Yes. At first glance, this is very much one of those “small fish, big pond” kind of stories.

And, truth be told, if you watched this movie with an eye for that surface-level appearance, the story would give you exactly that. Little more than the trials and tribulations of a little fish as he works to find a place in a pond that turned out to be much bigger than he had expected. But as soon as you get beyond that surface-level thinking, you will immediately find that Chazelle, Teller, and Simmons have all worked remarkably hard to provide the audience with a message that’s been all but lost in this, the age of participation trophies… “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”

J.K. Simmons has been lauded for his performance here, and for good reason. His character is incredibly motivated (perhaps over-motivated) to spread the film’s thesis statement, and he acts as this brilliant villain/mentor hybrid that simply hasn’t been seen before… At least not in the capacity presented. And Simmons does an astonishing job at filling that role.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’

As a piece, WHIPLASH takes a long, hard look at the differences in the ideas of “people who are good at what they do,” and “people who are great at what they love.” A view where no one person is responsible for an individual’s success… It takes a measure of independent dedication, outside drive, and personal support to achieve greatness in it’s purest and most passionate form. To my eye, that “long hard look” is exactly what sets this film apart from all the other “little fish” stories, and is exactly what makes WHIPLASH worth your time.

This is, admittedly, is where my self-doubt comes in… The combination of personal nostalgia, lavish musical performance, and a resolute perspective on the trials and tribulations of “dreaming big” leave me with little choice in making any kind of “official” rating… It’s a must-see kind of movie. 9 out of 10. Two thumbs up. Five stars. Pick your poison. But I have been so fascinated, so enchanted by my experience in watching this movie, that I cannot rightfully claim to have had an impartial viewing experience. I saw a little too much of myself on that screen.

So I guess you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.