Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 106 minutes
Best part: Teller and Simmons.
Worst part: The relationship sub-plot.
Even the most cynical person on Earth will admit that music is a valuable art form. As a universal language, the medium can bring people together and tear others apart. From the first note to the last, a track can turn sombre morsels into happy-go-lucky specimens. From gospel to blues ‘n’ roots to rock, music genres – like movie genres – rise and fall depending on the surrounding pop-cultural landscape. Whiplash, a small-scale drama with big aspirations, meticulously examines the miasmic world of jazz.
The idea for Whiplash, similarly to a classic album, simmered for several years before seeing the green light. Based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s horrific music school experiences, his 85-page screenplay treatment hit Hollywood’s notorious Black-list. After gaining interest, he adapted 15 pages of his original effort into an 18-minute short film. Boosted by Hollywood’s occasional-stroke-of-genius methods, this first-feature – a $3.3 million/19-day-shoot production – lands smoother than Miles Davis’ silk threads. The story, like the scintillating tunes blaring throughout, flows with as much intensity, prowess, and class as humanly possible. In fact, it takes this ‘humanly possible’ idea, and re-moulds it into something truly extraordinary. Spirited twenty-something Andrew (Miles Teller) studies the jazz drums morning noon, and night. Hitting his strides at America’s top music school, the Schaffer Conservatory of Music, the ambitious youngster’s life couldn’t be better. Dating candy-bar girl Nicole (Melissa Benoist), he yields vivid dreams about his immediate future. Picked by renowned studio jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is unaware of what’s about to happen. In their first practice session together, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew before slapping him repeatedly and screaming profanities. From there, Andrew is in it for the long haul.
Fletcher, to motivate terrified students, tells a hearty story about influential musician Charlie Parker. In 1936, at Kansas City’s Reno Club, a 16-year-old Parker got up on stage to perform ‘I Got Rhythm’ on the saxophone. Whilst bombing spectacularly, the drummer, Jo Jones, lobbed a cymbal at his head to the crowd’s approval. Parker, after a year of intensive practice, returned to the venue and made history. If this tale interests you, then Whiplash will suit your tastes perfectly. Following up Inside Llewyn Davis, this psychological-drama delivers an equally impressive ode to a specific genre. Jumping back to a better time, the movie’s infatuation with soulful hits and inspirational artists hits its audience with bass-drum-like momentum. From the opening scene – depicting Andrew and Fletcher’s first interaction – onwards, the movie crafts a spirited dynamic between two enthralling professionals. Going Full Metal Jacket within the first half-hour, Whiplash‘s student/mentor relationship turns up the heat, stakes, and emotional resonance. Delivering some of cinema’s most brutal insults, Chazelle’s screenplay echoes Aaron Sorkin’s more focused works. Like The Social Network, egos, personalities, and tempers clash like warring, blood-thirsty factions. Switching from Brassed Off to The Master to Black Swan, Whiplash conducts a seasoned and visceral performance throughout its taut run-time. Chazelle’s style – defined by quick cuts, whip-pans, close-ups, and a saturated colour palette – elevates each set piece. The heart-thumping climax, set at New York’s Carnegie Hall, delivers actioner-like thrills and sports-drama bravado.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. (Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash).
Despite the overworked premise, Whiplash never walks to the beat of its own drum. The central conflict, beyond the trauma and rage, delivers blackly comedic moments. “Are you one of those…single tear people”, Fletcher asks Andrew as his reputation and defences crumble. Throughout this fear-and-potential-driven experience, Andrew and Fletcher’s feud sends characters and film-goers into a tailspin. Andrew – praising music religiously – treats each sound, music page, and instrument with greater affection than most. Seeing his father (Paul Reiser) and girlfriend as mindless distractions, his anti-social behaviour wrestles with Fletcher’s sociopathic teaching methods. Fletcher, looking for the next big jazz talent, switches gears every few seconds. One second, he’s chatting heartily with old friends. The next, he’s berating his pupils over physical features, wrong notes, and slight mishaps. Despite the shocking behaviour, his intentions become clear and, to a certain extent, believable. Obliterating the “good job” approach, his style births classic hits and memorable musicians. Teller and Simmons bolster the movie’s relentless tempo. Adapting to the blood-sweat-and-tears role, Teller delivers his most commendable performance yet. Drumming with immense power, the Spectacular Now leads improves upon his skills here. Simmons, known for the Spider-Man trilogy and Juno, excels as the mighty mentor ruling his rhythmically sound version of hell.
Boiling Whiplash down to its most salient conceits, Chazelle teaches us a valuable lesson: don’t meet your heroes. More importantly, if you do meet them, don’t work for them. This drama-thriller is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and expectations. Driven by our leads’ momentous conflict, the movie’s cynicism and snarky wit might prove too much for some. However, the compelling story and fun performances deliver a beat worth tapping to.