Whiplash is an intense drama about an aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) who attends a fictional music school, named Shaffer Conservatory. Barely 19-years old, he is spotted by an infamous, but brilliant conductor Terence Fletcher (outstanding J.K. Simmons) whose jazz band needs a new drum alternate. Andrew manages to get the spot, but what may seem like a dream come true at first, a real breakthrough, soon turns into the worst possible nightmare. Fletcher is egoistic, bad-tempered, devilish and intimidating and his monstrous working methods don’t exclude verbal attacks, psychological torture, slapping and throwing chairs in his student’s heads. His God complex seems to give him a permission to constantly humiliate his entire band – and they have no other option than to suck it all up or quit music forever.
“Oh dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pancy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine year old girl!” Simmons is one of the most mesmerizingly horrifying men cinema has seen in a long time and as Ty Burr brilliantly put it in The Boston Globe: “When Fletcher stops the band and tells a player “That’s not quite my tempo,” it’s the judgment of an Old Testament God.” Fletcher’s uncompromising character is also one of the reasons that Whiplash picked up a nickname “Full Metal Julliard” at last years Sundance Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize).
Everything Fletcher does is supposedly done for their own good. He believes that there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job” and this is why he’s pushing them to their limits and beyond. But are his students really strong enough to survive this constant pressure? Are they able to withstand the constant humiliation in front of the whole classroom and turn this fear of Fletcher into anger – and finally, anger into music?
Andrew is quiet, introverted and from what it seems, friendless guy, whose only wish is to become a great drummer. But is he determined and tenacious enough to survive Fletcher? We quickly come to realization that he’s much stronger than it may look at first. Although a little awkward and shy around girls and still going to the movies with his dad, he becomes more confident after he gets accepted into Fletcher’s inner circle. During a family dinner with his cousins, there’s no trace of his shyness anymore – he’s become cocky and disrespectful towards other family members who seem to be satisfied with living a mediocre life (“I’d rather die drunk and broke at 34 and have people at dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was“). If we were afraid at the beginning how Fletcher will eat him alive, it is clear by now that the two actually deserve each other. Fletcher has finally got a student who’s up to the challenge and Andrew (who doesn’t just want to earn Fletcher’s approval, but in some weird way actually wants to become like him) is more than willing to practice until blood splashes all over his drumset. It isn’t long before there’s a war going on between the two narcissistic egomaniacs. Is it possible for the both of them to come out of it alive?
There has been some criticism about how Chazelle “misses the point of jazz”, how he makes it all pain and no fun. But all of us who went to music school know how realistic his portrayal of practising music actually is. Because music is not just about being creative and expressing yourself – it can also be about pushing yourself over the boundaries and practising until nearly passing out. As Chazelle himself explained:
I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as “You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.” True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall. So if you’re actually serious about getting better at something, there’s always going to be an aspect of it that’s not fun, or not enjoyable. If every single thing is enjoyable, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough, is probably how I feel. But this movie takes it to a extreme that I do not condone. (Chazelle in Robinson 2014)
It seemed impossible to me that a simple story about a musician who wants to realize his dreams could work as a thriller. There has been too many films focused on aspiring musicians and musical prodigies that didn’t quite work (1980’s film Fame comes to mind and I’d rather not even mention the awful August Rush). But 29-years old Damien Chazelle’s second feature film showed me wrong. This was easily one of last year’s best thrillers (and I’ve seen Gone Girl and Nightcrawler) where you’ll find yourself sitting on the edge of the sit, gasping for air. There is no chasing cars, no horrible crime or murder to solve. This is a thriller about a guy who is drumming his ass off. Who knew drumming could be so exciting?
I had seen a lot of music movies that celebrated music or that showed the kind of joys from playing music, which is a big part of it of course, and not something that I would want to deny. But I hadn’t seen that many movies that really go deep enough into the fears of playing music, or the language that musicians can use to treat each other, or like the way that you can see it dehumanize and the way that it can feel like boot camp. (Chazelle in Dunaway 2014)
The impressive jazz score (by Justin Hurwitz – you can listen to it here) is one of film’s strongest and most impressive components, but what stands out nearly as much as the music is the brilliant editing by Tom Cross. It isn’t until the final 15 minutes that Whiplash truly turns into a mesmerizing and breathtaking thriller and achieves the greatness (with the most magnificent directing, editing, sound recording and acting) you never imagined it could. A truly amazing (and surprisingly confident for a second-time director) film that will stay with you for a long time after you’ll leave the cinema. Whiplash is also a film that (once again) showed us the undeniable talent of Miles Teller and that will hopefully be able to redefine Simmons’s career.
List of references:
- Burr, Ty. 2014. “Whiplash” creates a relentless tempo.
- Chazelle, Damien in Robinson. 2014. Damien Chazelle on what is and isn’t ambiguous about Whiplash.
- Chazelle, Damien in Dunaway. 2014. Sundance Preview: Director Damien Chazelle on Whiplash.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miler Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Running Time: 106 minutes