Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
So many movies about music find a sense of catharsis and joy when characters, either fictional or based on real figures, discover their talents, or the song that will make them famous. Films have a knack for playing into those moments in a manner that feels like a nudge and a wink to the audience, as if to say ‘here it is, the song they’ll be famous for’.
Even if the character, or characters, find themselves facing insurmountable odds of some sort, either through burning out or substance abuse issues, there is still a potential happy ending on the horizon, or the chance to rediscover their talents for either a comeback or through some semblance of closure.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash turns these types of conventions violently on their head. This is not the type of film that you may think it’s going to be based on the plot synopsis. In fact, one could argue that it falls into the realm of a thriller or even a horror film, given its unflinchingly violent and emotional nature.
Of all the films to have appeared on Music in the Movies so far, Whiplash, the first of two appearances in the series from director Chazelle, is as intense a film as it is likely to get. Even with the dramas that come from other films that have featured here, none will bring out the response from the audience that this one does. It’s no surprise that one of the credited producers is noted horror producer Jason Blum. There is nothing supernatural about the film, but there is a monster of sorts lurking throughout it in the shape of J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher. Chazelle’s screenplay may take as its main setting a prestigious New York music school and centre itself around the complex interactions of a music teacher and student, but it never falls into the realm of some feel-good drama where both characters find a common ground in order to achieve greatness – at least not in the way a more obvious film would do so.
There is so much to unpack with its final scene, a moment of triumph that perhaps hints at darker truths for the audience to deal with. The film never for one minute takes the approach that others would so lazily opt for. Instead, Chazelle takes lead character Andrew (a never better Miles Teller) and plunges both him and the audience into something more nightmarish and stomach-churning. Nobody dies, but the thrust of the film is less dreamy and uplifting and more of a descent into abuse and terror, where the only way to achieve greatness is to break yourself. Amongst the most striking moments of the film, none is as disturbing as Andrew’s hand bleeding and cracking profusely as he pounds on the drums to better himself. It’s as far from other music-minded films as you can get.
The film asks dark questions as to what it means to pursue one’s talents, and what is the ethical way to influence those abilities. Both Fletcher and Andrew share a moment of genuine warmth towards each other in the film’s very final image, but it’s one that you will be unable to respond to in kind. Yes, the final scene is as close to cathartic as films with a musically talented theme can get, but the journey there involves emotional abuse and humiliation doled out to Andrew to get him to that place. Even with all of that, one might even find themselves questioning the motivations of Fletcher in those final scenes, and whether his tactics that end up getting Andrew to where he is are in fact deliberate or just something that comes about because of more vindictive bullying.
Initially beginning life as a short film directed by Chazelle, the feature version marked Chazelle’s first full-length film. While his follow-up La La Land would also take musical talent as a theme, it would do so in a dreamier manner compared to the film that got him noticed. For its entire duration, Whiplash takes the musical prodigy story and plunges into a quagmire of nightmarish confrontation and unknowing character motivations. J.K. Simmons deservedly won an Academy Award for his work here. An actor who can flit between serious and comedic roles, here he plays a character that you might think you’re going to like by the end of the film, but who instead has you on edge for the entire run of the story.
Every scene with him plunges your gut into a never-ending set of twists and knots that makes both the film and his performance one of the most genuinely unpredictable in recent years. Where Chazelle would find a sense of romance and longing with his next film, one where to achieve dreams with talent can lead to an ending that is bittersweet, but achievable with a balance of happiness and sadness, Whiplash is an inherently more bitter concoction. Even with its bittersweet conclusion, La La Land leaves you with the possibilities in the air of a better tomorrow. Whiplash suggests that to achieve brilliance comes at a cost that you may have to be willing to accept whatever the consequences.
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Miles Teller has never been better, capturing the drive but confusion of Andrew in a less showy way than Simmons, but his work is every bit as devastating and brilliant as Simmons, who shouts his way through the film to the point that you might be able to taste his breath, even though you’re watching it through a big or smaller screen. It’s a performance that is filtered through what the audience will no doubt experience while watching the story unfold; questioning, wondering, and plagued with doubt and questions over key plot points and twists.
The film builds to one of the most electrifying climaxes in recent film history. It’s as close as the film gets to that moment of musical discovery, but since this is Whiplash, it comes with so many unanswered thematic questions that will stay with you long after the end credits roll. One thing is for sure: it gets its tempo right.