2014 still has a couple more months to go and some big, well-regarded movies are soon to be released. They will have to go a long way to surpass Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which is head and shoulders above anything that has been widely released thus far. Of all its outstanding qualities, this is what makes it truly triumphant: it takes a firm stand on its central thematic question. I can’t overemphasise this point. (WARNING: this is a potential spoiler, providing you read between the measures). The story dramatises the pursuit of artistic excellence, and as you might expect in such a story, there is a question of degree. One character directly poses the question “is there a line that should not be crossed” when pushing oneself toward perfection. Should you sacrifice all personal relationships? Should you accept abuse, both emotional and physical? Should you essentially cease living out any other part of your life? Most movies that delve into these questions try to qualify their answers. They talk about the need for balance and stability and support. Whiplash does not. It chooses a side and makes its case. With a raw energy that is hard to find.
The movie is carried by two tour de force performances from Miles Teller, as Andrew, a 19 year old drummer at a prestigious music school, and J. K. Simmons as Fletcher, the tyrannical leader of the school’s premiere jazz band. Teller, who was somewhat over-praised for his work in The Spectacular Now, is exceptional as Andrew, adding a deep-seated maniacal ambition to the outward goofiness he has perfected. And he needs to be exceptional because he is sharing the screen with the best performance by an actor in a film this year. Simmons has been providing excellent support for decades. Here, he is allowed to step into the spotlight. The performance is reminiscent of long time supporting actor Robert Forster’s lead turn in Jackie Brown, for which he was Oscar nominated back in 1997. Simmons should receive similar acclaim. His Fletcher is a sadist and a bad guy, but like all bad guys, he doesn’t see himself that way. He believes passionately in what he is doing and that makes his behaviour all the more engrossing. If that were all Simmons was asked to do, it would be a first-rate performance. But he brings many other colours to Fletcher. There is a sensitive side. There is extreme pettiness. There is a brilliant display of glad-handing which masks a scorpion’s sting. There have been many movies that have played on this tough teacher archetype. Simmons immediately takes a spot at the top of that list next to John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase.
Whiplash begins a little bit like Fame, the popular Alan Parker movie from 1980. We are in a performance academy of some kind. We meet Andrew, slaving over his drums. We meet Fletcher, who both encourages and belittles Andrew. But we immediately know we are in a different world. Things are not bright and shiny and colourful. It is dark. Drab even, as though we are in some kind of musical film noir. And whereas a movie like Fame, or a TV show like Glee, will broaden out and introduce us to a wide range of characters all pursuing their dreams, Whiplash will remain focused like a laser on its two central characters.
Indeed, if you are looking for a criticism to make of Whiplash, you might point out that beyond Andrew and Fletcher, there is no other character of interest in the movie. There are other characters, to be sure. Paul Reiser does a nice job as Andrew’s father, and the two young actors playing Andrew’s drummer competition, do well. But none of them matter or even register. Though I suppose it would have been nice to have another character or two to latch onto, I suspect this is a wise decision on Chazelle’s part. It would have been difficult to balance any other character or subplot with the Andrew-Fletcher plot-line. And in a series of smart narrative decisions, Chazelle pulls off a small stroke of genius at the end when he sets up a potential reunion between Andrew and his minor romantic interest (played well by Melissa Benoist) and then resolves it in a most surprising manner.
You might also complain that Chazelle has difficulty in dramatising what it means to play the drums well. We are treated repeatedly to intense drumming scenes in which Fletcher exhorts and bullies Andrew into playing faster. Obviously, there is more to virtuoso drumming than speed, but that is very difficult to put on screen. And it’s a very small complaint in the face of such cinematic brilliance.
This type of story has a rather predictable structure. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to announce that Andrew will have his confidence torn down and then reconstructed by Fletcher. But it plays out in several surprising ways throughout. It may seem trite to say in a movie about music, but there is not a false narrative note. There is even a Godfather II homage, which you may be able to see coming, but will not see how it will play out.
The technical aspects are all sharp. Obviously the music is crucial, and writing as someone who is neither a fan of, or knowledgeable about, jazz, I can only say that I liked the music quite a bit. And I liked Sharone Meir’s cinematography just as much. It seamlessly evolves from that murky darkness of the opening sequences into equally dark, but intensely focused imagery, as Andrew’s drive becomes more focused. By the end, we are seeing every drop of sweat and blood.
The young musical prodigy narrative may recall Scott Hicks’ Shine (1996), but Whiplash is far better. And it is really a very different movie. It is probably closer to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (1997), but whereas Aronofsky’s movie overcooked its operatic melodrama, Chazelle remains fully in control of his similar journey into the darkness of artistic ambition. And we should all be grateful that he did.