Editor’s Note: Whiplash opens in limited release on October 10th.
Anyone going to a jazz performance in a theatre or bar is more than likely there to relax, take in the smooth music, and enjoy a bit of culture. Those clubs or events are portrayed on film as a little haven away from the ear smashing noise and nerve shredding stress of the real word, a place to retreat to in order to unwind. However, according to Whiplash there is a very different side to this coin. The musicians’ point of view from behind the scenes can be a hellish experience of blood, sweat, and tears.
It is a simple juxtaposition of a film school standard, but writer and director Damien Chazelle gives it weight…
It is a simple juxtaposition of a film school standard, but writer and director Damien Chazelle gives it weight, using it as a starting point for greater things. The story eventuates to be a character study of someone who wants to be the best, how far he will go to achieve that, and the relationship with the person that could either help or hinder him on his journey. And it is that rocky relationship that drives the drama.
Andrew (Miles Teller) comes from a modest background; his father is an aspiring writer (though he still hasn’t written anything), but a school teacher by day and his extended family are fairly unsupportive of his non-sporting interests. But Andrew still manages entry into the best musical school in New York based on his skill with the jazz drums.
While practicing in class, Andrew is handpicked by hard-edged, intimidating perfectionist conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to play in his band. What the student does not know is that the seemingly brilliant teacher’s methods are not common. Fletcher berates, ridicules, and abuses his students into delivering the pitch-perfect performance. Words like faggot and pussy spew venomously from his mouth, the veins in his forehead about to pop. He is even prone to throwing instruments at his students. His endless stream of verbal take-downs leaves newbies as quivering, teary messes, including Andrew.
At first, Andrew uses it as incentive to practice and concentrate harder, his hands often dripping with blood from the constant beating on his kit. However, the mind games continue, increasing in intensity and it begins to be scarily unclear as to whether Fletcher is doing this for the benefit of his student or if it is far more personal. Perhaps he is actually unhinged. Also, Andrew’s goal to be “one of the greats” puts a strain on his blooming romance with the cinema patron he asked out and his own mental health.
This is also a story of a mentor and scholar that is entrenched in darkness - the cinematography is reminiscent to a David Fincher film.
With echoes of Black Swan, without the nightmarish body horror and transformation, Whiplash delves into the psyche of the artist and his pursuit of perfection and artistic satisfaction. This is also a story of a mentor and scholar that is entrenched in darkness - the cinematography is reminiscent to a David Fincher film. While the butting of heads between Fletcher and his stubborn student is the centre of the story, Andrew’s mental health slowly comes into question. While it is never discussed during the film, Miles Teller’s performance skilfully suggests it. There is an element of suspense throughout, as we wonder if Andrew will achieve his goals against the adversity, but also as he teeters on instability - we anticipate his mental breakdown.
Fletcher is drawn as a one-dimensional villain for the longest time, his screen time taken up with his tirades. Later in the story, he enjoys the opportunity to be humanised with a back-story and a softer side shown in possibly one of the most “scripted” moments of the film. It comes along like clockwork, in an inorganic set-piece and although Simmons is consistently terrific, the scene and the timing comes off clunky.
However, there is an immediate recovery with a show stopping finale/showdown between the adversaries that, after an already intense film, is enough to leave one stunned and out of breath. In addition to being a showcase for the terrific sounds of jazz music, Whiplash is an impressive, moving, and emotionally shattering experience that still respects the art form it depicts.
Whiplash is an impressive, moving, and emotionally shattering experience that still respects the art form it depicts.