Anxiety is not a common feeling one experiences when watching a film, but it sometimes feels as if Whiplash has been put together in order to induce such a feeling or even worse, a panic attack of sorts with a narrative that is the ultimate in pressure cooker cinema.
Damien Chazelle’s musical-drama Whiplash marks not only the arrival of Chazelle into the wider public’s conscious and the first of two movies that would dominate award ceremonies on the year of their release, but would also be a major milestone in the collaboration with composer Justin Hurtwitz that continues into this year’s First Man.
While First Man puts its focus squarely on to one of the greatest of American historical figures and events, Whiplash is part of a double bill of sorts with Chazelle’s next movie, La La Land, that incorporates themes of music, artistic talent and the quest to achieve goals with said talent. But whereas La La Land would filter those ideas through magical musical numbers, romance and emotional poignancy, Whiplash would be the tailor opposite; it’s a darker, meaner beast that feels as if it has been designed to induce a panic attack in its audience and feelings of intense discomfort that it almost feels like a challenge to look away from the screen.
Like Chazelle’s follow-up musical that would net him a Best Director Oscar, Whiplash is centred around two characters. However, instead of romance, love and longing, it presents something of a more antagonistic and dark variety; a teacher/student relationship that dives into some dark territory and which asks major questions of the audience and which presents scenes and character motivations that may prove to incite differing reactions from audience.
Centred around Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who enrols at prestigious music school The Shaffer Conservatory in New York, Neiman soon finds himself embroiled in an intense relationship with Terrence Fletcher (an Academy Award-winning performance from J.K. Simmons) that goes beyond the realm of a teacher/student relationship and which pushes Neiman to limits that he may not be able to endure.
While at first glance Whiplash looks as if it’s going to fall into the realm of musical teaching drama (albeit of a darker variety than was then normal in Hollywood), if anything it falls more into realm of some sort of smaller scale personal war movie – or even a horror film. After all, it was produced by Jason Blum and came from his famed Blumhouse Productions. If anything, it all adds up to the realisation that Whiplash is not a film that can be easily classified nor defined.
Whole articles and think pieces have been written with regards to the motivations of Fletcher, whether or not the film’s final moments can actually be constituted as a happy ending, and whether or not the film’s vindication of Fletcher’s methods as Andrew becomes the brilliant drummer he has always set out to be is really meant to be taken positively or as something darker. Debate even rages on a five-second shot of Neiman’s father (Paul Reiser) and the look on his face and whether he’s looking at his son achieve brilliance with proud awe or horror.
Directed with precision and a high degree of intensity by Chazelle, the film was inspired by his own experiences when attending Princeton. Although by his own admission he pushed it even further than what had happened in real life, while laying the film’s punishing tone on his inability to get funding for La La Land, which would very much not be a problem after the success he would achieve here.
Garnering much attention on the festival circuit, Whiplash gained critical acclaim and a very profitable box office gross ($49 million against a budget of $3.3 million) and would earn itself a number of nominations come awards season. Much of the acclaim went the way of J.K. Simmons for a highlight in a career full of great performances.
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For anyone who grew up enjoying his arch, hilarious performance as J Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Fletcher was a reminder of how intense a performer he can be. His outbursts, abusive treatment of his students and incredibly offensive insults are more in line with his performance in the sadly forgotten HBO drama Oz from the late-90s, while he also reminds audiences of how versatile a performer he can be.
Then there is the music. A combination of Justin Hurwitz’s score and Tim Simonec’s jazz numbers, the film bleeds music in the way Andrew’s hands do as he pushes himself further and further, with a percussive drum beat nearly infecting every scene, either as source music or the score itself. With jaunty upbeat swing music being performed, it almost acts in a contrapuntal nature to the scenes before and after, an upswing in musical tone that leaves one tapping their foot one moment and then gnawing their fingernails down to bloody stumps as Andrew and Fletcher push each other even more, with Fletcher more often than not almost on the verge of destroying Andrew.
While Simmons won the awards, it is easy to overlook the work of Miles Teller. Whether or not you love him or hate him due to either his ill-advised comments on his work in the Divergent series, it is easy to forget that around this time there was a feeling that Teller was going to be something special, what with his work here and the year before in the sadly little-seen The Spectacular Now, a film that has never received a UK home entertainment release, but which features spectacular work from both Teller and co-star Shailene Woodley.
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His intense work as Andrew could have fallen into some strangely unsympathetic performance in the hands of another performer. His breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (a pre-Supergirl appearance from Melissa Benoist) is somewhat mean and cruel given the emotional compartmentalisation he displays. Yet Teller never loses the audience. We’re right there with him as he strives for greatness and Fletcher’s respect. He carries the story emotionally and sympathetically in a way that might have proven trickier for other actors.
It all builds up to a superb finish, the likes of which is still debated to this day. But the one thing that cannot be disagreed with is how intense, cathartic and punch the air brilliant it is. Whatever your opinion of what that final scene means and entails, the intensity of Simmons and Teller, the combination of Hurwitz and Simonec’s music, the direction and editing all combine together to make Whiplash nothing short of a mini-masterpiece that will probably get better with age.
While Chazelle’s next film would have similar themes of talent unfulfilled waiting to be discovered (similar to those covered in his low-budget movie Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench from 2009), it would do so with a lighter step, with emotions of a less dark and more of a lump-in-the-throat variety; less emotional war movie and more of a move to magical realism.
Another Day of Sun in the City of Stars would await.