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Bang The Drum Ever Faster In The Different Sports Arena Of 'Whiplash'

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons face off in Damien Chazelle's impressive drumming-as-sport film, <em>Whiplash</em>.
Daniel McFadden
Sony Pictures Classics
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons face off in Damien Chazelle's impressive drumming-as-sport film, Whiplash.

Whiplash is, in many ways, a companion film to The Social Network. The similarities only begin with the film's protagonist Andrew (Miles Teller), a first-year jazz drummer at the highly competitive Schaffer music conservatory, who shares both the compulsive drive and the unpolished social skills of Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg.

Unlike Zuckerberg, Andrew doesn't start off as a jerk. Whiplash's writer-director, Damien Chazelle, lets him grow into one instead. Andrew is self-effacing to start, but he gains confidence when he comes under the tutelage of Schaffer's dictatorial studio band conductor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). And when Andrew tells his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), that they have to break up because she will be a distraction to his work, a hindrance to his progress as a drummer, his blind self-righteousness recalls the casual insults Zuckerberg hurls at his girlfriend in The Social Network's opening scene.

That Chazelle brings a quick-paced Sorkinian wit to his script only makes the comparison between the films stick more. Fletcher teaches largely by launching demoralizing insults at his students, most of which cannot be repeated here but are marked by their punchy concision as much as their inventive vulgarity.

Andrew, however, could hardly be described as tongue-tied. He responds to his relatives at a family dinner with the same disparaging counterattacks that Zuckerberg offers his opposition lawyers. When one football-loving cousin suggests that if Andrew thinks the sport is such a joke he should "come play with us," Andrew instantly shoots back: "Four words you'll never hear from the NFL."

Andrew may have only scorn toward his cousin, but, as with the regatta scene in Social Network, the introduction of athletics helps underscore the debt Whiplash owes to sports films from Hoosiers to Remember the Titans. These movies aren't the only influence on Whiplash, of course. Fletcher is as much a trash-talking drill sergeant as he is a hard-nosed coach, and Andrew's move from class underdog to first-chair drummer shares elements with music biopics. But the combination of those two elements mixed with Chazelle's attention to the blood, sweat and tears of Andrew's drumming gives the film a physical energy that we associate more with locker rooms than music studios.

Andrew's work under Fletcher is defined by the demand to play ever faster. This is not a vision of jazz that embraces a laid-back Dave Brubeck sound; its need for speed is fiercer even than that of bebop, the style that Fletcher obviously worships. This is no-pain-no-gain jazz. Jazz turned into a jock's game.

In one scene, Fletcher has Andrew and two other drummers compete for the chance to play at an upcoming performance by seeing which of them can first hit and hold an exact, rapid-fire tempo. He keeps them in the studio for hours, sweating through attempt after attempt.

The scene exemplifies Chazelle's strategy of giving his subject matter a steroid injection — pushing it as close as possible to a bench press competition — in order to bring excitement to an activity that's not naturally heart-pounding. David Fincher used the same tactic in the Social Network's intern tryout scene.

More than Social Network, though, Whiplash attempts to maintain that high-level intensity to the end, a strategy that's engrossing but forces the script to repeatedly up the ante and pushes it in some improbable directions.

Ultimately, what keeps Whiplash from becoming a joyride whose effects last only as long as its adrenaline rush are Simmons' and Teller's performances and Chazelle's insight into Andrew's personality. What Chazelle stresses about Andrew is his obsessiveness. And what he really nails about obsession, about those people who work tirelessly at a specific goal, is that their struggle is not about achieving success rather than failure. It's about demonstrating genius rather than mere talent.

From the first shot of Whiplash, you know that Andrew has chops in his chosen field, just as you do with Sorkin's Zuckerberg in his first scene. For both these characters, as in the most rags-to-riches sports tale, a few victories never suffice. What makes Andrew transplantable from a recording studio to a sports arena, and what makes Whiplash so compelling to watch, is this push toward greatness, the inherent thrill of which, Chazelle realizes, has little do with the activity that inspires it.

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Tomas Hachard