19 year-old Jazz drummer, Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), enrols at one of the most prestigious Music schools in the country. It’s there that he is pushed to his very limits by the relentlessly ruthless conductor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Blood, sweat, and tears are (literally) shed on this brutal journey towards greatness.
From the off, you can tell this film was made with a big deal of passion and affection, which is certainly reinforced by the fact that Damien Chazelle wrote Whiplash as an adapted account of his time in a “very competitive” jazz band at High School. This is further supported when listening to and researching aspects of the score. Possibly one of the greatest scores I’ve ever heard for a film. Both diegetic and non-diegetic music are equally as powerful. But perhaps the most impressive element is how Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec carefully selected and recycled classics for the construction of the soundtrack. Using jazz standards ‘Caravan’ by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizal, and the integral use of ‘Whiplash’ by Hank Levy shows how much care for the genre of jazz was put into the making of the score. Also, the inclusion of professional jazz musicians and students as extras only adds to the vibrancy of the film’s aesthetic.
One of the many reasons why particular films can be regarded as ‘classic’ is due to their ability to address several contextual themes. Just as Birdman expresses ideas of existentialism in a light-hearted comedic fashion to a backdrop of Broadway theatre, Whiplash explores these avenues through a hyper-realistic lens to the setting of jazz music. The most apparent take on this existential understanding asks the question; “How far is one willing to go in order to achieve greatness?” whilst posing other questions along the way, such as “What is the ‘true’ perception of greatness?” and “What are the limits to how far someone can push or be pushed?” The dynamic of these two characters: tyrannical mentor and dedicated student gives a sharp examination of the severe measures the human spirit can expose itself to.
Richard Brody of the New Yorker writes that “Whiplash honours neither jazz nor cinema” as he complains how elements of the film do not truly convey jazz in its most glorious light. He also states how it displays “the idea of jazz as a grotesque and ludicrous caricature”. I completely disagree as the spirit of jazz in this movie is as truly electric and compelling as you’d come to expect. Jazz isn’t always as dark and relentlessly brutal as the film’s tone will lead you to believe, however, I feel the amount of desire and dedication in order to expertly command certain songs with technical and masterful poise is truly poignant throughout the film. It’s also easy to forget that this movie isn’t necessarily a ‘jazz movie’ either. The focus is pointed more toward the teacher vs student dynamic (and the individual/dual limits). It’s much more of a humanistic study of dedication than a glorified celebration of jazz music – It just happens to celebrate jazz simultaneously alongside its thematic exploration.
Obviously one of the biggest talking points are the two central performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. By far their best performances to date. Teller displays a wonderfully enthusiastic yet vulnerable young adult willing to lay it all on the line. Showing us exactly why he’s considered one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood. In terms of Simmons’ portrayal, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an actor you’ve become accustomed to for safe ‘family fun’ entertainment… and then all of a sudden, they give a critically acclaimed dramatic performance; much like Matthew McConaughey and Bryan Cranston have done in their careers with Dallas Buyers Club and Breaking Bad, respectively. Although Simmons has some experience playing a controversial figure from his time playing neo-nazi Vern Schillinger in the brilliant HBO prison drama Oz, he really excels as the similarly twisted music teacher, Terrence Fletcher. He has come along leaps and bounds from his slightly cartoony portrayals in films such as Spiderman or Juno as he seems completely at ease playing a monstrously unscrupulous dictator. Let’s hope his foray into all things dramatic continues.
It’s clear to see that this movie is somewhat of a personal and passionate product of newcomer Chazelle’s love for music. And is also testament to the classic adage to filmmaking – “Write what you know.” I hope to see more from this talented filmmaker and hopefully he proves that he can also excel with subject matter less personal to him. A remarkably exciting film with perhaps one of the most rewarding culminations in cinema history. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re a fan of jazz, if you’re a fan of cinema… you must see this film.
5 Bloody Drumsticks out of 5
by Simon Garganera Price