WRITTEN REVIEW – Whiplash (2015)
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser & Melissa Benoist
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Release Date: January 16th 2015
From the outside, Jazz is often perceived as a relaxed musical art-form. With improvised, laid back but also soulful music being the general public’s perception of the genre it can be easy to forget that, just like many other forms of art, it often takes a combination of blood, sweat and tears to attain that talent and success. ‘Whiplash‘ is a similar labour of love as this is Damien Chazelle’s second directorial feature (after 2009’s ‘Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench‘, which also followed Jazz musicians) and is partially inspired by his past experiences in a Jazz band in high school under the thumb of a notorious band leader.
The end result has received great critical acclaim, taking the top prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and the 40th Deauville American Film Festival as well as receiving five Academy Award nominations including “Best Picture” and “Best Adapted Screenplay (despite not being adapted from anything other than a taster short made by Damien Chazelle to attract investors which doesn’t make a lick of sense on the Academy’s part). Is ‘Whiplash‘ worthy of all the hype and accolades?
Oh god, yes.
‘Whiplash‘ follows Andrew Neiman (Teller), a Jazz drummer studying at one of the best music schools in America. He quickly catches the attention of the enigmatic conductor of the lead-band, Terence Fletcher (Simmons) who gives Andrew a place in his band. Once he gets involved, however, it’s revealed that Terence is akin to a musical drill-sergeant who frequently insults, abuses and belittles his band members until they attain perfection. Andrew’s social life starts to deteriorate, including a relationship that barely got started before he calls it quits, as well as his family life in his goal to not just be “great”, but to be “one of the greats”.
What’s interesting about ‘Whiplash‘ is that, in the end, it’s not a movie about Jazz. It’s not even a movie about music. It’s about two titanic personalities going toe-to-toe with each other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more accurate portrayal of the irresistible force paradox; what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? And “force” is a very accurate term when it comes to J.K. Simmons’ career-best work as Terence Fletcher. While Miles Teller is incredible in the movie, it’s Simmons getting all of the awards-buzz and for very good reason.
He is a force of nature in ‘Whiplash‘. An intimidating, master manipulator who feels like a hurricane personified. On the surface, Terence just seems like an R-rated J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man‘ movies, Terence even opens one of his band practice sessions with “Listen up, c***suckers” and proceeds to kick out one band member because he THOUGHT he was out-of tune. His power over the band-members is exacerbated by shots of the band members standing to attention as he walks into the practise room, frozen with fear about the off-chance that he might potentially throw something heavy at them. J.K. Simmons is an incredible presence on screen and everything from the way he grabs the air when he wants the band to stop playing, to his subtle hand gestures when conducting shows Simmons completely disappearing into the role. However, there are also frequent moments where Terence drops his harsh-exterior to display real emotional depth which prevents him from just being a character destined to feature prominently in online “Best Movie Insults” compilations.
“I am not going to have my reputation tarnished by a bunch of f****** limp-d***, sour-note, flatter than their girlfriend’s, flexible tempo dips***s, got it?…Get the f*** out of my sight before I demolish you!“
One scene where he explains his motivation to Andrew initially seems like it’s the movie trying to spell out its message and moral while displaying a softer-side to him. A weaker movie would have just left it at that, but ‘Whiplash‘ uses this momentary weakness to cleverly flip the tables later on with a single word;
While most of the buzz and attention is being given to J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller does an admirable job in matching his intensity. Teller is really put through the wringer in ‘Whiplash‘ with frequent, intense drumming sequences as well as confrontations with the Simmons who has been acting for even longer than Teller has been alive, but the two display formidable chemistry. ‘Whiplash‘ is more akin to psychological war-movie and a game of wits rather than a horror movie about an unstable teacher. The amount of punishment Andrew inflicts on himself and the dedication he shows to his ambition makes it look like he’s been put through a boxing match as he covers his drum kit in his blood, sweat and tears (literally) while playing as if his life depended on it.
Miles Teller’s drumming skills also allows for the camera to pull back and showcase his talent as opposed to relying on frequent cutaways like many films revolving around music. While there are a few close-ups on hands, it’s a very well-done cheat and 90% of the time, it’s definitely Teller playing the music.
Despite ‘Whiplash‘ being the 2nd shortest “Best Picture” nominee when it comes to run-time (6 minutes longer than ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘), the movie is an incredibly intense and draining cinematic experience. The plot is incredibly well structured and, like a great Jazz number, takes unexpected turns just when you feel complicit in what is going on. It does an incredible job of getting into Andrew’s head and showing WHY he’s so desperate for the approval of a potentially homicidal person thanks to the lack of passion in his normal life with his family. This is, first and foremost, a story about artists wanting appreciation and respect on their own level. Andrew comes from a family that idolises their sports-fanatic children and don’t understand Jazz music, or at least not on the level that Andrew does. Andrew takes his girlfriend to a pizza place on their first date because he loves the Jazz music there and is able to name the song, the artist and the year the piece that the speakers are playing was recorded.
Andrew lives and breaths Jazz and even though Terence Fletcher berates him constantly and pushes him more than should be allowed, Andrew relishes the opportunity to prove himself to someone as immersed in that form of music as him. This creates a fascinating power-dynamic between the two and who is REALLY in control during their metaphorical sparring matches makes ‘Whiplash‘ a breathless and exuberant watch. The music sequences are as thrilling and as intense as most action sequences in recent memory without a single punch being thrown and in terms of “heart-in-your-throat” musical set-pieces with dizzying camera movements, impeccable editing and sound mixing, it’s one of the best cinematic accomplishments in tension since 2014’s ‘Grand Piano‘…in which Damien Chazelle wrote the screenplay for.
Chazelle has an incredibly bright future ahead of him with this consistently excellent output.
‘Whiplash‘, despite its tiny budget (the cheapest of all the “Best Picture” nominees in terms of production budget), is an absolute technical marvel. Its dizzying, yet controlled camera-work, clever shot placement and composition as well as terrific use of lighting makes the scenes pop in the appropriate way. Slow motion is cleverly used and with its great use of locations and costumes the world of Jazz music is simultaneously tantalising and intimidating.
But it’s the editing where ‘Whiplash‘ truly excels and if it doesn’t take home a trophy in either visual editing or sound mixing, it’ll have been completely robbed (though for certain technical categories, the Academy seem to just hand out the “Best Editing” Oscar to whoever shows up, which is an absolute shame because it truly is a craft and a labour of love and shouldn’t be seen as a consolation prize). The music sequences have been cut cleverly and polished to a mirror-shine with many cuts and transitions being made to the beats of Andrew’s drumming. The audio levels and sound mixing are perfectly manipulated during these sequences and when you combine that with the great cinematography and performances as well as the emotional context for these brilliant characters, watching ‘Whiplash‘ is almost akin to a religious experience.
‘Whiplash‘ is, without question, the best movie up for contention at the Academy Awards right now (save ‘Selma‘, which has not been released in the UK yet). It’s a raw, visceral, intense, powerful and thought-provoking analysis on artists and suffering for their craft. Even if ‘Whiplash‘ doesn’t agree with the almost tortuous conditions Terence puts Andrew through on a regular basis, it does make a strong case for that kind of approach, even if it’s just for self-fulfilment. With two amazing lead performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, ‘Whiplash‘ is an incredible movie and it’s the one I’ll be rooting for come February 22nd.
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Posted: 22nd Jan 15