Introduction

Whiplash

Whiplash
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2014
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Running time: 107 minutes
 

Whiplash is a ‘dazzling, exhilarating’ thriller (Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph) about the disturbing relationship between a young jazz drummer and a demanding tutor at a New York music conservatory. Andrew Neiman (MILES TELLER) is determined to be the next Buddy Rich while Terence Fletcher (J.K. SIMMONS), who conducts the school’s prestigious studio band, believes in pushing his students to breaking point in order to bring out their best. ‘Exquisite and painful’ (Betsy Sharkey, The Los Angeles Times), it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. J.K. Simmons won the Golden Globe and has also been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Fletcher is charismatic and terrifying, hurling insults and objects at his students when they make mistakes. He enjoys citing the anecdote that drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a raw Charlie Parker when Parker messed up a live solo in Kansas City in the 1930s, in so doing motivating Parker to practice intensively and thereby become a jazz legend.

Andrew pursues his craft obsessively, neglecting a nascent relationship with a girlfriend (MELISSA BENOIST) and becoming disdainful of his father (PAUL REISER), who failed in his ambition to become a writer and became an English teacher instead. We see both Andrew’s exhilaration and his pain as he is driven to the limit of his ability and his sanity.

The film builds to a climax as it thrusts the viewer into Andrew’s all-consuming, maddening pursuit of greatness. ‘The battle of master and disciple is exciting and terrifying to witness’ (A.O. Scott, The New York Times).

Whiplash was written and directed by 30-year-old DAMIEN CHAZELLE. He first made it as a short film, which won a prize at Sundance in 2013. His screenplay was inspired by his experience as a drummer selected for his high school jazz band, whose conductor had transformed them into a nationally renowned outfit by imposing discipline and, in the process, instilling fear.

Chazelle also wrote the script for Grand Piano (2013), in which a classical pianist making his comeback performance receives a note saying that he will be shot if he makes any mistakes.

Re-view

Whiplash

FILM TO THE SOUNDTRACK

“Music became associated in my mind, above all else, with – not entertainment, or fun, or self-expression, but – fear... To capture the emotions  I felt in my drumming years, I wanted to shoot each musical performance in the movie as though it were a life-or-death contest – a car chase, say, or a bank robbery. I wanted to showcase all the details I remembered – all the dirt and grime and effort that go into a work of music. The earplugs and broken sticks, the blisters and cut hands, the incessant counting and the beeping metronomes and the sweat and fatigue. At the same time, I wanted to capture those fleeting moments of beauty that music allows.”

(Damien Chazelle, writer and director)

Full Metal Drum Kit

The ‘antithesis of “let’s-put-on-a-show” fluff’, Whiplash is a film primarily ‘about the wages of all-out sacrifice and commitment’ (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter). ‘This is a film about the violence of obsession: scene after scene of relentless drumming - pulling you in so tightly to the hi-hats, cymbals, rides, kick, that you almost taste the globular drops of sweat and blood’ (Jake Alden-Falconer, The Independent).

Chazelle crafts his film with the requisite rigour. The visual style ‘delights in the spectacle of relentless punishment’ (Calum Marsh, Sight & Sound). As Henry Barnes observed in The Guardian, ‘the camera zips from one player's sweating brow to another's shaking fingers. The precision of the performance is hard won. This is desperate, volatile stuff.’ Rehearsal scenes are edited to ‘a sharp and gripping rhythm’ (Amber Wilkinson, The Daily Telegraph), imbuing them with an underlying dread more commonly associated with a battle sequence.

The relationship between instructor and rookie at the film’s core is also more suggestive of the military than music. Fletcher resembles R. Lee Ermey’s tough love drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).

(Tor)mentor

J.K. Simmons is pitch-perfect as Fletcher, who ‘conducts with his fist, snatching the music out of the air whenever one of his pupils is a sliver off-key or out of time’ (Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph) ‘like a Roman emperor signalling for someone to be decapitated’ (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian). In Simmons’ hands, ‘Fletcher's words carry the same fearsome power whether a whisper or a shout. He can move from punisher to benefactor, grimace morphing into approving smile in a heartbeat’ (Betsy Sharkey, The Los Angeles Times).

The other half of the finely tuned duet at the film’s centre is rising star Miles Teller, who shows ‘a rare ability to play a nuanced teenager who’s troubled, complicated, awkward and charming and... provides the drummer with just enough empathy so that we sense the humanity he’s risking by so doggedly chasing his dreams’ (Tim Grierson, Screen International).

Off notes

The film depicts Andrew heading for a breakdown at Fletcher’s merciless hands but some critics noted detours that distract from the movie’s pacing. Calum Marsh of Sight & Sound was frustrated by Chazelle’s tendency to follow narrative convention, saying that ‘a perfunctory girlfriend destined to be discarded on Andrew’s road to jazz mastery is an especially tiresome concession to a Hollywood template’. Similarly, A.O. Scott of The New York Times found that ‘the contrast between Fletcher and Andrew’s father... is drawn a little too emphatically, as if nice guy and artist were completely antithetical’.

Epitomising Andrew’s single-minded focus, the movie starts with a black screen and a slow drum beat, the darkness giving way to a long, empty corridor, with Andrew and his drum kit framed in a doorway at the end of it. Reflecting Andrew’s anguish, Chazelle and his director of photography Sharone Meir have given Whiplash ‘the brooding, spooky look of a horror movie, turning the New York streets and the school hallways into a realm of deep, expressive shadows. There is an atmosphere of whispery menace’ (A.O. Scott, The New York Times). Writing in The Independent, Jake Aiden-Falconer said that ‘Accompanied by a creeping bass-line, these film noir shots of the Big Apple’s filthy bins and neon lights’ resemble the ‘crooning cool’ of Louis Malle’s collaboration with Miles Davis in Elevator to the Gallows (1958).

Crescendo

Whiplash gets so many things so right it starts to feel like the perfect-ten Ellington rendition its elite big bands play in the big competition. In nearly every cut and tempo shift, the film moves with acute rhythmic sensitivity, and Chazelle works out the conflicts and plot points the film needs to find its logical climax with a purely musical moment’ (Chris Norris, Film Comment).

The final scene is ‘one of the most glorious, satisfying finales in... recent cinema’ (Robbie Collin, the Daily Telegraph). Its ‘surge of pure musical inspiration pushes the audience’s response from curiosity to empathy to awe’ (A.O. Scott, The New York Times) and ‘satisfies as drama even more than it does as music spectacle’ (Chris Norris, Film Comment).

 
Pro-files

Whiplash

J.K. SIMMONS

(TERENCE FLETCHER)

With his long, lugubrious features, bald head and deadpan drawl, J.K. Simmons is a recognisable face from countless Hollywood films. He has worked steadily since the mid-1980s but may be best known for his performances for the Coen brothers: he was one of the inept members of Tom Hanks’s criminal gang in The Ladykillers (2004), a sinister CIA chief in their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading and a lawyer in their 2010 western True Grit. He is also well known for his portrayal of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson in the first three Spider-Man movies, between 2002 and 2007.

Simmons has appeared in all of the five films Whiplash Executive Producer Jason Reitman has directed, notably as the eponymous lead character's father in Juno (2007), but also Thank You For Smoking (2005), Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult (2011) and Men, Women and Children (2014). And, completing the Whiplash connection, he played the same part in the earlier (2013) Whiplash short film.

Simmons also has a long track record in TV shows such as ER and The West Wing.

 
Cinemas

Whiplash

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