Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)- A Stylish and Gripping Dark Metaphor for the Extremes of Artistic Ambition

Whiplash-Teller and Simmons-DrumsA quote often attributed to Voltaire in loose translation is “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” which in its easily understood intention means that sometimes seeking out perfection can blind our own sensible selves to recognizing the feats of accomplishment that have already been made instead of on the shimmering myth of flawlessness. Many creative artists, whether they are musicians or filmmakers alike, are tortured souls who push themselves into a place where the precision of their craft goes beyond artful expression and enters a realm of religious practice or acts as an addictive substance that brings effervescent highs yet painful, soul-crushing lows. And like it is with all drugs there are enablers, pushers, sellers, and promoters of a lifestyle and that is exactly what Professor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is to talented and impressionable jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) in newcomer filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; a viscerally stylish and grippingly strenuous mentor-protégé film that was nicknamed at Sundance as “Full Metal Drum Kit.” “Full Metal Jazz Band” might be a more appropriate moniker for Chazelle’s unrelenting film which showcases a masterful cinematic hand almost similar to a master jazz musician who finds nuances, details, and moments within a familiar structure making something familiar into something undeniably fresh. While there might be a few dramatic missteps—an aspect that makes the film seem a tad more human than perhaps a robotic cinema exercise—they are practically unrecognizable amid the flurry of edits, the tension building drama, and two completely focused performances that highlight the film’s reflection on the ill pursuit of perfection. Whiplash utilizes its minor fault of having a familiar story dynamic by treating it as familiar as a jazz standard where freedom of interpretation through Chazelle’s creative vision, a mixture of technical precision, detailed eloquence, and a dash of emotion, makes for an absolutely kinetic film experience. Seldom will films show the true pain that accompanies the desire to perfect your craft and make objectively good music, but what Whiplash also ponders is whether the fanatical obsessions from both teacher and artist can justify morally corrupt ways for accomplished musical means.

Chazelle as a writer has music on the brain in regards to how it’s utilized in being an element that accentuates the character drama at the center of his pieces, whether you consider his first feature the Vincente Minnelli influenced Guy and Madeleine in the Park or the eerie classical pianist thriller screenplay he penned for Eugenio Mora’s The Grand Piano. Expanding a short he did for Sundance we find that music is at the direct center of Chazelle’s newest film Whiplash as well and it serves as the catalyst between music teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller) that unleashes an unconventional mentor-protégé drama that has a torrent of mental, physical, and emotional abuse that can be exhausting since you absorb it just as much as the tormented drummer. Nineteen year old Andrew has dedicated his life to playing the drums to the point of almost social isolation and with greatness in his mind he pushes himself to get into Shafer Conservatory of Music’s renowned jazz “Studio Band.” The problem is that that once he’s in the “Studio Band” it’s led by a sadistic boot camp-like instructor named Fletcher who is reminiscent more so of R. Lee Ermy in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket than he is of the nurturing guidance of Robin Williams in Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society. Fletcher sees a promising drive of ambition and the hint of talent within Andrew and strives to use his abusive teaching method that includes undercutting verbal attacks (“No wonder your mother left you”), physical intimidation (throws chairs, slaps the face to keep you in time), and mental mind games (brings in lesser proven musicians to scare security away) in order to make a promising musician into an exceptional one. The entire film is a strenuous give and take between Fletcher’s method and Andrew’s will that culminates into a dizzying drum solo climax that is more edge of your seat suspenseful than any action sequence that has graced the screen in the last decade. Chazelle’s script is able to balance two exceptionally written characters in a battle of personality while also challenging our perceptions of what’s appropriate and right when it comes to nurturing young talent.

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Of course most people would find Fletcher’s methods horrifying and morally suspect but the film never takes an objective stance on the issue leaving it up for the audience to decide whether or not Andrew’s metamorphosis into something musically exceptional would happen with or without Fletcher’s guidance. “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job’,” is the unapologetic attitude Fletcher has for his students that allows him to unsympathetically push his students into religious servitude to the altar of music with Andrew drumming to the point of bleeding that seems almost like a ritual of self-flagellation. What makes Whiplash such an enveloping experience that ultimately results in audience mental exhaustion and physical fatigue is how Chazelle directs his technical department to fully encompass you alongside Andrew’s torment and struggle. Chazelle’s film is pure build up through the gracefulness of style allowing the steadiness of Sharone Meir’s cinematography and the undercurrent of Justin Hurwitz’s score to only compliment the climactic buildup that is as rhythmic and consistent as Andrew’s drumming buildup in one of his stunning drum solos. But mainly it’s the exceptional editing from Tom Cross that is pure artistry as he clashes edits with symbol crashes and cuts flawlessly to the rapidness of 75 year old jazz classics, including Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” Whiplash concerns itself with perfection of an art and considering film itself is an art the film demonstrates that there are artists in creative fields of filmmaking that can work as a collaborative team to create something just as technical and masterful as any written jazz composition. Chazelle has brought together his own cinematic “Studio Band” and every element comes together with careful guidance from a young director’s hand that just happens to feature some incredible solo performances from two finely tuned performances that are so refined that they almost gloss over every other aspect of Whiplash’s mastery.

At the center of the film is the young and talented Miles Teller who has seen a quickening pace to his early career stride as of late with featured performances in some beloved indie works including The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole while also venturing into the realm of populous blockbuster entertainment with Divergent and That Awkward Moment. What’s commonplace among all of Teller’s performances is that he brings a confident and capable presence that is able to stand on his own as a promising talent but more importantly works incredibly well with others as he matches or mimics his counterparts presence, whether it’s the delightful Shailenne Woodley in The Spectacular Now or especially here with fellow actor J.K. Simmons in Whiplash. As an individual actor it’s definitely clear Teller put all of his physical and emotional self into the role as he utilizes his experience playing the drums since he was fifteen years old to create the riffing himself and continuously shows his youthful spirit that balances enthusiasm with obsession. Teller’s talent as a collaborative entity becomes quite clear throughout the film as his interpretation of Andrew as an obsessive, determined, and devoted drummer gets more complex as he begins to mimic the traits of his teacher’s unpleasant rancor almost as though he’s a captive experiencing Stockholm Syndrome. Though they work together incredibly well it’s of course Simmons who brings an all fire and brimstone performance here as Fletcher tapping into being a fearsome mentor that pushes his students and apprentices into either extreme of prominence or lunacy. Simmons has always been good in any film or television role he’s touched but Whiplash finally gives him a role of prominence that could very well deliver an Oscar nomination and possible win for becoming such a domineering presence with very little backstory to aid him. These two soloing artists are what truly make Whiplash such a memorable, engaging, and all-encompassing experience as they riff off one another with such elegance that the film almost becomes solely about their performances though there is so much more to marvel at once the smoke clears from their explosive collaborative jazz effort.

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An anecdote that the character Fletcher continuously recites throughout Whiplash is a famous jazz incident when Count Basie drummer Jo Jones almost decapitated a teenage Charlie Parker for going off-tempo while playing the saxophone at a 1930s gig (see Clint Eastwood’s Bird for a visual replay of the incident). This repeated story amplifies the entire film’s grey area of whether or not passive criticism versus abusive challenging is the answer to what makes a musician truly great with protagonist Andrew at the center walking that morally suspect line with pure emotional commitment, physical determination, and slight mental imbalance. Director Damien Chazelle has written a solid unconventional study of a toxic mentor-protégé relationship that ignites on the screen with stylish technicality that merely compliments a carefully executed climactic buildup that brings every element of his film together with artful purpose. Whiplash might have a few dramatic missteps relating to some character detail or familiarity with the core structure that has been adopted to tell this story but it truly is only familiar in structure while the intent, meaning, and execution are all splendidly refreshing much like a jazz standard is reinterpreted on numerous occasions with equally prominent artists. With Whiplash we get a reminder of character actor J.K. Simmons capability to be an unbridled force to be reckoned with while newcomer Miles Teller proves again that his youth and developing experience as an actor serves as a phenomenal complimentary blank slate to create great collaborative feats. Ultimately Chazelle’s film stands on its own as a dark examination metaphor for artistic ambition and how venturing the almost impossible task to reach perfection in your art can be a harmful path that sees your craft taking over every aspect of your life resulting in a pained and empty existence.

Grade: A-

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