US (2014) Dir. Damien Chazelle
Drummers have long been the butt of all jokes in the music industry (eg: “What do you call someone who hangs around musicians? A drummer”) despite the skill required to be a really good drummer. This derision is often (and unfairly) aimed at rock drummers while Jazz drummers are considered the untouchables in percussion terms.
This second feature length film from Damien Chazelle, based on his own experiences, aims to shed light on why this might be with a tense and savagely portrayed look into the nurturing of a young Jazz drumming talent while hoping to open the doors of appreciation towards these skin bashers, earning three Oscars along the way.
While practising late one night first-year Jazz student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York is spotted by brusque conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). Fletcher is impressed enough to invite Andrew to join his Jazz band who are preparing for a major competition.
At first Andrew is an alternate to core drummer Carl Tanner (Nate Lang) but after accidentally losing Tanner’s folder with the sheet music to the track Whiplash, Andrew gets the spot as he can play it from memory. However Fletcher’s brutal and drill sergeant like manner with his students begins to have a negative effect on Andrew.
Whiplash could be viewed as either a passionate love letter to the dedication and resilience of gifted musicians or a deeply cutting and affecting anti-bullying video. Much of the film looks at the pressure the whole band, not just Andrew are put under to achieve musical perfection, although the focus is on the drum stool where Andrew and two other tub-thumpers are driven to near emotional and physical collapse.
Fletcher is an unrelenting monster of exceedingly high standards that appear to exist in is head only and woe betide anyone who cannot match them. He is practically horror figure with his bald head, sharp blue eyes, all black attire and foul mouth that fires of razor sharp barbs and insults with machine gun like rapidity. It is almost frightening how inhuman Fletcher comes across yet no-one has the guts to stand up to him – not even the other teachers.
The central motif of Whiplash is not the drumming or even the music but the idea of being great at playing the music. Fletcher hooks Andrew with the apocryphal true story of the legendary Charlie Parker at aged 16 having a cymbal thrown at him by drummer Jo Jones during a show when Parker messed up. Parker ran off stage to the audience’s laughter but a year later, after relentless practise, returned to blow everyone away and cement his legacy in Jazz history.
Chazelle’s film is a deep study into the world of musical discipline but he also is aware that not all of the audience will be solely smitten or possibly even interested in the music aspect, so the usual drama conventions are thrown in to flesh out Andrew’s life. There is his teacher father Jim (Paul Reiser) who raised Andrew alone and has academic aspirations for his son, and the predictable love interest in cinema worker/fellow student Nicole (Melissa Benoist – the new Supergirl). The latter is an almost redundant role to be honest, as she appears only a few times and fits the clichéd role of “sweet girl dumped in favour of musical inspiration”.
Elsewhere Chazelle reminds us of the existing snobbery towards a credible vocation when at a family dinner, Andrew’s cousins are praised for their low division football achievements while his ranking as one of the top musicians in the country is scoffed at. But this serves to spur Andrew on and he applies himself even harder to get better and meet Fletcher’s lofty standards.
It may not seem like the sort of thing to lend itself to intensity but Jazz itself is a musical style that requires immense virtuoso dexterity, discipline and impeccable timing and Chazelle is able to translate this for the audience through both the music and the performances. The conceit is the titular piece Whiplash with its frantic double-time tempo which enrages Fletcher when no-one can reach “his tempo”, which suggests Fletcher is either an impossible perfectionist or a fiendish slave driver.
He is actually both and J.K Simmons was justly rewarded for this role (which in my opinion is the lead role) at the Oscars. His portrayal is one that engenders fear and loathing in equal measures yet one is unsure as to whether his reputation is through this or out of respect for his genius. Simmons is able to create that sense of ambiguity even when he allows a brief moment of humanity to show and in the process delivers one of the memorable performances of the past five years.
Miles Teller looks like your average American teen but both he and Andrew grow into someone that is on a mission and is driven by real passion and not constructed or implied passion. Teller handles pretty much most of the drum work here with a few shots in which he is substituted by a professional, and is his own skill is not to be overlooked. Teller also brings the requisite intensity to the role both behind and away from the kit, shedding real sweat and blood over the drums as seen on screen.
Chazelle originally couldn’t get funding for this film until a short version won at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. This film eventually cost $3.3 million to make and earned $33 million. Visually it is superbly well shot in capturing the minutiae of the drumming techniques as well as the physical suffering of the players. The editing team certainly earned their Oscar while the soundtrack is maddeningly addictive, even for non-Jazz fans.
Music fans may appreciate Whiplash more but this film needs to be seen to truly understand and respect the dedication found in musicians, especially in such a demanding genre as Jazz. A sublime work.