By Kyle G. King. Typically when a movie begins with a drum roll it is advertising that a blockbuster feature is in store. Twentieth Century Fox’s signature introduction of sizzling snare and blaring brass tells the viewer to sit back, relax, turn their brain down to four, and simply enjoy themselves for the next 2 hours. Well, Whiplash isn’t a Twentieth Century film and the its opening percussion sure doesn’t encourage relaxation or enjoyment. The drum roll is fierce and hungry. It’s the kind that marches armies into battle and signals inevitable bloodshed (and boy. It doesn’t disappoint).
Whiplash is the expanded tale of a three-scene short film, both from young director Damien Chazelle. The short was premiered and revered at Sundance last year, and the amassed acclaim earned Chazelle the financial support to produce a feature film on the same subject. Whiplash (the feature) gives the audience front row center seats to the brawl of the beatnik: that of Artistic Passion vs Crippling Sacrifice.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first-year student at Schaffer Conservatory, “the best music school in the country”. He is second chair/page turner in the school’s studio band but is extremely eager to have the pages turned for him, win first chair, and to inevitably “become one of the greats”. He displays the work ethic necessary to attain it all in the opening solo practice session.
The school looks and sounds abandoned, as if Andrew has stayed late to squeeze in more rehearsal. Andrew is on his kit and tuned in. He’s massaging and buffeting it, mindlessly but cathartically. He’s too focused to notice the audience he’s gained. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) stands in the doorway. It’s instantly as if a murderer has entered the room. Miles jumps and begins dousing Fletcher in sirs and sorrys. Fletcher quickly accesses and manipulates Andrew, both as a drummer and a human being. It’s swift and demeaning. One the first of many effecticient and astute scenes. It sets the tone of high stakes and blaring intimidation.
Andrew has little to occupy his time outside of a drum set. His father (Paul Reiser) is quite involved, but not a musician or creative himself and is out of tune with understanding his son’s musical vocation. They spend time together only to prove they’re related and while Andrew has that father figure in his life, it’s a lightweight support system for his passion of the arts. In a callous dinner scene with his father and extended family, Andrew is an outcast. His family fails him in understanding the sacrifices often needed to become the artistic legend that he covets. It’s a scene that Miles Teller slices into delectably. This is as funny as the film lets itself become while still maintaining its razor sharp atmosphere.
At school, Fletcher snakes from classroom to classroom. He spontaneously appears in doorways and disappears the instant he hears less than perfection. The cinematography and J.K. Simmons do a superb job of intimidating the audience with Fletcher. He pops in on the jazz orchestra Andrew plays with to recruit or possibly only to reject potential players. He goes down the line like judge, jury, and firing squad giving each instrument and the human being behind it less than 3 seconds to dazzle him. When they inevitably fail to live up to his faultless standards, he dehumanizes them; oftentimes in emasculating and overtly homophobic ways. But Andrew, who Fletcher refers to simply as “other drums”, impresses in his 3 seconds and gets a chance in Fletcher’s prestigious band.
Fletcher’s band is more a militant boot camp than a nurturing creative refuge. He believes raw talent is nothing without extreme discipline. Members of his band are expected to push themselves beyond their breaking point and nothing can ever be considered good enough. He bases his methods on a story about legendary jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Jo Jones. Jones, displeased with young Charlie Parker’s performance on stage one night, threw a cymbal at Parker and humiliated him in front of the entire audience. Parker vowed to never fall short again and practiced tirelessly all year. When he returned to the same stage a year later, he belted out one of the greatest performances in jazz history. Fletcher’s conviction is that the only way to create the Charlie Parker’s of the world is to be the cymbal throwing musical tyrant that Jo Jones was that night.
Fletcher’s cruelty towards Andrew extends far beyond cymbal throwing. He treats Andrew like a literal drum: beating, twisting, and smacking him to play faster, better, and “on my fucking time!” Blood, sweat, and tears pour from Andrew during every practice with or without Fletcher’s presence. Fletcher’s influence hounds Andrew everywhere he goes. After a while, Andrew takes on many of his instructor’s features. Andrew’s naivety and soft exterior fall away and before long he’s no longer the starry eyed young drummer he once was. He’s been callused into a machine for Fletcher’s control. But Fletcher still refuses to give Andrew the recognition he craves. The two compete for each other and themselves with a progressing intensity that matches Whiplash‘s fierce drumming accompaniment.
Whiplash has the backdrop of a world steeped in jazz, drums, and music, but it’s hardly a film about music at all. It’s about what it takes to be the best. It’s about work ethic and reward. Whiplash makes great use of rich, dense scenes to move the story forward without feeling rushed. Under another team this movie would risk being much longer, much emptier, or both. It stays true to itself but isn’t too smug to challenge it’s own themes. What plays out is a brilliant dissection of the nature of creativity for any and every ambitious artist.
Whiplash is not without its defects. As hard as its thematic punches can hit for many viewers, if one does not have a rapt understanding of the artist’s struggle, a lot of the film’s shading and understanding may become lost. While this inherent subject matter is gold plated for award season, it may be genetically divisive for general audiences. The only other lost opportunity for the movie is with Andrew’s love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist). They have several vivid scenes of romance and drama, and Benoist can be as tender as she is assertive, but her character is only ever a device for Andrew’s confidence and dedication. Her story drops off without purpose or respect, instead of providing further device to Andrew and/or herself.
With or without her, Andrew finishes the story fittingly behind his drumset. The ending shakes and satisfies in a triumphant showdown between master and apprentice in befitting style. (I honestly couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.) Award season bees are already buzzing for Whiplash and its stings are as satisfying its honey. Don’t miss out on this underdog contribution to what should be a fully-loaded award season roster.