Whiplash

Whiplash ★★★★★

The exhilarating impression imparted on me from a January 2015 screening of Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" stayed all year, and after a rewatch in the early winter I had the conviction to declare it the best of that year. The virtuoso facets were seemingly endless: an impeccable set decoration and use of heightened interior lighting; a razor-sharp script that coupled the highs and lows in the music room to personal life peaks and troughs, and an intensity in the leading acting performances. The coda also happened to leave me breathless in spite of my righteous take on the immorality of the screen figures. I watched the movie at the end of 2019 in preparation for a best of the decade appreciative piece and was slightly concerned that it would not hold up. My knowledge of jazz music had progressed from the dilettantish perspective of how the film presents its version of a jazz conservatory as factually accurate, and I could comprehend with deeper reasoning as to why the disparagers of "Whiplash" would not analyse it beyond the tendentious view that artists must literally put themselves through obsessive hell to achieve the pinnacle of their potential greatness. The narrative can be defined as rather limited in scope, the heavy-handed antagonist flirts with caricature, and there are a few moments of suspended disbelief. Such minor flaws represented trivialities when attached alongside much of the perfection produced in this riveting and audacious triumph. "Whiplash" is a palpable adrenaline rush; lean, visceral, and impassioned. A sure sign of a competent director and screenwriter's successful output is in highlighting a niche subject (jazz drumming) to mass audiences, and finding the correct notes to make everyone care about each strike of the snare or cymbal like their life depended on it.

Recent appreciative essays on great movie selections have brought me additional context to answer such anxious uncertainties on the level of adversity one must endure to reach that standard. In John Cassavetes's "Opening Night" the actress Myrtle Gordon professes a comprehensive dedication and drive for the art, even sacrificing her biological clock to prioritise a life's legacy in theatre. In Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov gives authoritative testament to his protégé Vicky that a great dancer cannot ascend from a reliance on doubtful human love, which brings distractions and a diluted focus to the core effort. Even playwright Wally in "My Dinner with André" helpfully quotes from Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" on how someone can live (and die) in their art, but never feel anything in their life. These examples, among others, tend to present an artist challenged and encouraged by a shape-shifting mentor, and often the climax builds to a crescendo wherein the artist seizes control to give a radical, in some cases possessed, performance bordering on a semi-divine presence (yes, even Wally finally injects himself into the dinner conversation). "Whiplash" might not be an accurate portrayal of the ways in which a jazz fraternity, here represented by the fictional Shaffer orchestra, utilises teamwork and helpful tips to improve their synergy, but rest assured there is a healthy cutthroat rivalry to compensate for benign jam sessions. As a deliberation on the incessant, ugly hunger to be the best in a given field, however, it is arguably peerless through its beautiful execution of competitiveness. Like Myrtle and Vicky, the coveted public adoration for our leading player is a temptation that justifies leading a private life in lieu of applause.

The movie begins with an enthralling image and sound dichotomy to instantly grab the spectator's complete attention. The sound of a snare drum being hit and growing louder, complemented by a long shot of our perspiring protagonist Andrew (Miles Teller) playing the kit from a narrow corridor vantage point, drenched in harsh fluorescent light and harsher green-coloured walls. Slowly the camera tracks closer and, as writer Chris Norris perceptively notes, here is ‘the hero of a coming-of-age tale just waiting for his mentor.’ Chazelle blindsides us with the reveal that this camera movement is a subjective point-of-view gaze from that very mentor's introduction, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who leaves an indelible, albeit perplexing, mark on the rookie's psyche. I went back to sample the opening sequence and unconsciously ended up persisting in viewing the entire feature, which I suspect is a common occurrence for others. The director Chazelle struggled to get funding based on the concept, but after completing a namesake short to showcase the proposed style and substance, investors began to understand the filmmaker's approach beyond their preconceived notions of a dull jazz presentation. As film critic Emma Myers articulates, the feature-length "Whiplash" contains the ‘kind of physicality one might expect from a sports movie but rarely finds in films about musicians.’ A.A. Dowd picks up the conversation on this topic, insisting that Chazelle has captured the ‘rare music movie to focus not on the liberating joys of playing, but on the sheer, punishing hardship of the craft.’ Chazelle meticulously implemented storyboards in preparation for filming. This is evident in the result, as his editing style leans towards incorporating lots of cuts, primarily close-ups of the tools (the spit valve insertion is a wonderful visual cue for a musician's perennial pressure). Dowd expresses how much of the editing is an expression of internal anxiety, as Chazelle ‘syncs his editing rhythms to the quickened pulse of his hero.’ The analogy of a sports movie is perceptive as we witness the resolute resolve to overcome the metaphorical losing position against the clock.

Most movies of the musical genre prefer to handpick either an artist who is naturally gifted, or conversely an imposter for comedy value purposes, although "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a notable exception with its reasonably talented journeyman musician. Since he was accepted into Shaffer, the top American university conservatory, Andrew is the former. It is difficult for the uninitiated to grasp whether the aspiring drummer in "Whiplash" is a true prodigy or a much of a muchness falling just short of greatness. On repeated viewings I have studied his play in comparison to his two alternate candidates, who are also vying to be the permanent core drum member of this elite New York studio band, and the difference initially appears incremental. Teller has experience of musical participation from his youth upbringing, and performs admirably on the drums in one of the few onscreen roles not filled by a trained musician, adding to its authenticity. In a scathing assessment of the film's idea of jazz, the esteemed critic Richard Brody is adamant that ‘there's nothing in the film to indicate that Andrew has any originality in his music. What he has, and what he ultimately expresses, is chutzpah.’ At a point in the film Fletcher confronts Andrew for being self-righteous and it is difficult to disagree with this despicable man's comment. Andrew has the air of superiority and self-entitlement, resenting the fact that he must earn the part and crassly dismissing the farcical level of his opponents. His arrogance spills over into the domestic sphere when he emasculates some family relations at the dinner table for playing football at a level well below the acceptable breeding grounds for the NFL. His attitude stems from the fact that the adults around the table find football a more attractive proposition to drumming, but it also insinuates his lack of teammate camaraderie because Andrew believes he is the centrepiece of the band. He idolises Buddy Rich, and that might account for some of his mimicked egotistical demeanour. Rich was one of the best drummers of all time with speed and precision, and he was not afraid to tell a fellow colleague when they were not keeping up with his rhythm or tempo.

Andrew wants and fully intends to become one of the great drummers as he practices in the opening scene, but he has not yet pushed himself to the point where he practices so hard to move his hands at lightning-quick speed, in order to meet the commanded tempo demanded by his abrasive teacher/conductor. Resembling the side effects of a ballerina's feet as a reminder of their body's punishment from repetitive motion, Andrew's digits will resemble a fleshy collection of open sores, manifesting as tangible evidence to his self-destruction as he ups the ante to seek approval out of sheer desperation. His rivals Ryan (Austin Stowell) and Carl (Nate Long) are unlikely to bleed for their craft during after-hours prep, because they have friends, a social life and other interests. Andrew's repression fuels a complete fixation to mastering his technique. It is true that Andrew regularly accompanies his dad Jim (Paul Reiser) to the cinema, but one can easily glean that the hermit's highlight is exploiting a brief interaction with the attractive kiosk employee Nicole (Melissa Benoist). It is no shock to discover that once Andrew is given a confidence boost and promotion by a judging Fletcher for his drumming ability, he feels like a new man who is now also worthy of asking a woman on a date. Nor is it a surprise on the flip-side, that when humiliated by Fletcher's sadism Andrew feels undeserving of love until he can once again prove himself with dedicated resilience, before seeking pleasures in other avenues. Critic Mike Scott animatedly describes the entire narrative arc: ‘This is a punch-in-the-face, bleed-on-the-drum-kit kind of film, a riveting confluence of energy, passion and broken blisters that serves as a tribute to the obsessive pursuit of excellence at any cost.’ I am reminded of an oft-cited mantra to summarise the conflicting nature of Fletcher's uncompromising methods: pain is weakness leaving the body. While there is a degree of truth in this philosophy, I would bring up another paraphrased saying as a rebuttal. I can adhere to a 'beware of the ill drummer' warning before a performance, but I don't know about the need to raise expectations for an injured drummer.

There are so many unknown components in the dynamic between Fletcher and Andrew. For instance, in the opening segment the bald-headed, black T-shirt clad Fletcher asks for some double-time swing, which is precisely the skill he will request when he ventures into the Nassau practice room (Shaffer's lower-level training ground for those hoping to enter the definitive music orchestra). The shaved head gives Fletcher added aura as the fluorescent lights provide it with a defined shine. The colour black is likely symbolic, as many commentators have alluded to his Machiavellian and Faustian characteristics, but it also implies a level of narcissism shackled to his perfectionism. There is a deleted scene from the final cut where Fletcher's background is fleshed out a little, but ostensibly it demonstrates how much of his spare time is spent curling the biceps under the slimming attire. Did Fletcher want Andrew to succeed at the impromptu audition because he heard something worthy in his play, or is Andrew a duped pawn to provide the current core drummer an incentive to improve? There are further ambiguous actions. As an alternate in Shaffer during a competition, Andrew misplaces the sheet music folder belonging to Carl, and since the latter has not memorised the likes of Hank Levy's 'Whiplash' and Duke Ellington's 'Caravan,' Andrew gets his first high-profile chance before a live audience. Even before that, during his first Shaffer rehearsal, Fletcher does his best to put the new recruit at ease, informing the young man he is there for a reason and to just do his best without worrying about being perfect. We cannot state with certainty that it was Fletcher who lifted the missing sheet music, but there is a good probability that he did this purposefully to continue his shape-shifting quest to lull Andrew into a false sense of security and self-esteem, only to play him like a drum and make him feel utterly worthless in time. Note how Fletcher reminds Andrew that he only made it into Shaffer conservatory because his examiner cheated for him by disclosing the double-time swing task in advance, and how he merely inherited the core position because of the sheet music debacle rather than on merit.

The most ghastly reversal of fortune is saved for the ruse of a caring, sympathetic teacher. Fletcher criticises and chastises Andrew with verbal, emotional and physical abuse (face slaps to explain rushing versus dragging) for failing to play at his desired tempo, the callous mentor uses the information shared at a personal moment in front of his peers, which culminates in a warped discourse on why Andrew's father is a failure and how it inevitably led to Andrew's mother disowning her son at a young age. David Sims posits that 'Fletcher believes great musicians can only be forged on a crucible of fear and torment’ and Dowd refers to these crucible classes as 'gauntlets of negative reinforcement.’ Fletcher is acutely aware of Andrew's fear of failure and becoming a modest success like his father, who resigned himself to high school writing with his dreams of becoming the next great American playwright abandoned, and uses this as manipulation. At the dinner table scene the spectator will learn that Jim was voted teacher of the year, but like an orchestra drummer, it is a success less celebrated than the MVP third-tiered footballer. Critic Betsy Sharkey commented on the effective tactics displayed by the vile Fletcher: 'He can move from punisher to benefactor, grimace morphing into approving smile in a heartbeat.’ This is exemplified through his clenched fist swipe to terminate the musical instruments before him. Not only do the players stop performing, Chazelle's camera also appears to hesitate until given the go-ahead to proceed. It should be mentioned that Andrew is not alone in being subjected to Fletcher's wrath, as the other drummers are vilified for their looks and manners, and an overweight trombone player is booted off the band under false pretences when Fletcher intimidates him into incorrectly admitting he is playing out of tune. Outside of the music rehearsal room, Fletcher is a different breed altogether, polite and approachable. This might reinforce the interpretation that he is simply portraying an imposing, villainous role in his work, but I am unconvinced. There is a terrifying aside in the film that should not be overlooked, with Andrew eavesdropping on Fletcher talking to the daughter of an alumni, with critic Steve Persall likening the moment to the murdering Peter Lorre character approaching children in "M," Fritz Lang's revolutionary masterpiece.

Having been subjected to the penal treatment by Fletcher, this jilted mindset pours over into Andrew's private life. Nicole has shown plenty of interest in her new boyfriend, yet he dismisses with unwavering coolness and detachment. In essence he confirms that his desire for greatness cannot accommodate a relationship with someone who is uncertain what she wants in life. It is as ruthless as Fletcher's earlier removal of the trombone player who, he states, is thinking more about his next meal. The way Andrew declutters his personal life is, in a way, the blueprint for his future percussion performances. He has punched a large hole in his drum after a painful practice; he wants to transcend the earthly pain and play with an almost heavenly sangfroid. He gets his opportunity to prove this accelerated drive when Ryan fails to impress Fletcher after barely one measure of his first piece in the core chair. This leads to the film's most harrowing segment as Fletcher plays his own roulette game with the trio until one of them can play to his tempo. As a viewer we look on thinking that the demanded pace of drumming required is physically impossible. In a real orchestra it would be foolish to subject drummers to such single strokes as a class practice drill, but on Fletcher's watch it is more akin to a boot camp. Yet after hours of suffering, Andrew finally delivers the tempo as Fletcher dares him not to slow down. In the aftermath his blood will need to be cleaned off the kit. Andrew has mentally numbed himself to play through the pain barrier, but as Sim insightfully points out, he is 'tragically wasting his effort on this sociopathic void of a man.’ Bleeding fingers ought not to be the by-product of skilful drumming. It would be the equivalent of a bodybuilder tearing muscles after punishing military presses. Andrew has become so fixated on proving his worth, he is unable to see the insanity in the ordeal, but neither do the other drummers stop the roulette contest to inform Fletcher they will not risk injury.

Fletcher intermittently reminds Andrew of an anecdote, where Jo Jones allegedly threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker during a live show for a sub-par rendition. In Fletcher's disputed retelling, Parker was nearly decapitated by the incident, but this inciting incident triggered Parker to practice harder until he became the 'Bird' and delivered the famous solo. Without that embarrassment, Fletcher believes the world would have been deprived of Parker's potential. One might presume then that Fletcher's flung chair towards Andrew is imbued with a similar weight of his potential, but it could also be a regular staple of Fletcher's past teaching. Do not be fooled by the tears he sheds over the passing of a past student named Sean Casey. Later information will reveal how he has altered the truth of the situation, and in hindsight his honouring tribute moonlights as a clever attempt to remove himself from any responsibility for the man's death. I suspect Fletcher has modified the Parker anecdote for so long that he now actually believes his version to have veracity. The truth behind the embellishment is that Jones placed the cymbal at Parker's feet, and there was never any imminent danger to his physical condition. By disseminating the alternate false account, Fletcher seems to be vindicating his methods. In a later scene, Andrew will quiz him on whether there is a line that, if crossed, would discourage the musician from persisting. Fletcher vehemently rejects the thought. 'No man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.’ By his own admission, he never had his own Parker under guidance at Shaffer, despite trying hard to unearth them. This frank disclosure sounds almost like a part-eulogy for all the souls, including Sean, who were treated like the next Parker but did not become an icon, and thus could never justify the bullying as a priceless gratitude.

As he worships at the altar of his hero Rich, Andrew is almost certainly aware of another anecdote unmentioned in the film. During an incendiary drum solo, Rich reportedly suffered a heart attack, but proceeded to finish the ferocious solo before standing up and leaving the stage to be taken to hospital. This story would be of great inspiration to Andrew, and he is unfortunately placed in a position beyond his control, where he must perform under the most taxing of hindrances. After arriving late to the call time due to legitimate public transport issues, a gung-ho Andrew mercilessly tells his understudy that his only worth is in turning the pages for the best drummer. Unfortunately Andrew's one-track mind meant he forgot to bring his sticks, in a moment that kindles the same outcome as his predecessor. Andrew knows that the misplaced sticks folly are his misplaced music charts, and that if he cannot atone for the oversight in the short period of time, his place as core drummer will be under perverse threat. This culminates in Andrew speeding and driving while using a mobile phone, and coming off the worst for wear in a car collision. As a precursor to the finale's superhuman effort, the walking wounded overcomes his physical deterioration to take his empty seat on the stage mere seconds before the curtain call. The dripping blood from his concussed head might make a great visual for an underdog victory, but he is in no shape to perform at his best unless he can summon the power of total transcendence. This sequence underscores my determination that if your injured body is falling apart from abuse and neglect in elevating your art, your mental, emotional and social hardening will not be enough to compensate for the depletion, barring a miracle. In "Opening Night" the stage hand tells the severely inebriated Myrtle that he has never encountered a drunk who could stand up with her volume of alcohol intake, never mind deliver a knockout acting masterclass. What the live audience does not witness is Myrtle collapsing as soon as she is out of sight. Andrew does not have the luxury of receiving sporadic treatment between scenes to soothe the agony and strengthen his inner willpower.

Chazelle allows some of the wind to escape after this climax to Act Two. Andrew's means to express himself has been denied with his expulsion from Shaffer for physically assaulting Fletcher. Now he is a broken man, wandering aimlessly with a part-time job in the city, perhaps finally empathising with Nicole's sense of insecurity for the future. Andrew was always an isolated figure, but he had a love for the drums that are now concealed in the closet as a ghostly remnant of his past aspirations. As Sims acutely notes, Chazelle 'often shoots Andrew as an isolated figure surrounded by negative space, reinforcing his enforced solitude.’ However, his deteriorating path is at least saved from total self a annihilation with the details his selfless father exposes around the suicide of Sean, the alumni who Fletcher claimed died in a car accident. With this revelation, Andrew slowly accepts that there were other exceptional talents under his tutelage who could have become the next Charlie Parker, but were left with such formidable scar tissue in their recesses that they could not live at all outside of the art form. As fate would have it, not long after giving testimony that will result in Fletcher's own dismissal from Shaffer, Andrew will stumble upon his appearance as a special guest at a New York jazz club. I quote Krin Gabbard's thoughts on this fresh meeting between the duo, unshackled from the teacher-student dynamic. 'When Andrew goes to hear Fletcher in a jazz club, I was amazed to hear him playing jazz piano in the soft, lyrical mode associated with someone like Bill Evans.’ Jazz aficionados can debate his performance's capability, which might very well be flawless in its own way. I think the majority of viewers, though, will listen and think how ironic it is that this individual, who expected harsh compositions recited at electrifying pacing from others, is satisfied to deliver a slow, pedestrian number that would not feel out of place on a much-derided Starbucks jazz compilation. Potentially this rendition rests upon an awareness of his own limitations and why he ended up teaching for a living, as a failed classical musician himself. I suspect Chazelle's decision not to use subjective close-ups of Fletcher's fingers illustrates the lack of cutting-edge jazz achievement at the piano. There must be some personal trauma haunting his own psyche for perfectionism, which is covered through the persona he has wears like a tightly-stitched match as the self-anointed world's greatest conductor and talent developer. Everyone lives in fear of damaging this autocratic reputation.

The finale is instigated through an unexpected olive branch. Fletcher and Andrew appear to have put their differences in the heat of the moment aside and are engaging together as two adult human beings. Fletcher laments that his upcoming live orchestral performance (as a freelance conductor?) is being hampered by an incompetent drummer, who has not mastered the charts for the studio band's canonical set list. 'Caravan' and 'Whiplash' are the headlining songs, and though a loathing Andrew has been in self-imposed exile from his drum kit, those memorised measures are vividly clear. He knows that this opportunity could lead to a career breakthrough based on audience reaction, and at the very least he can excise the demons from his last stage tragedy after succumbing to the effects of his car crash. Though Andrew seems to be metaphorically sleeping with the enemy in this arrangement, he was assured by a legal team that Fletcher would never learn the identity of his accuser in lieu of a public hearing. As Sims elocuted on the resultant fly-in-the-ointment: 'In the final concert scene, Fletcher is not trying to get Andrew to rise to his challenge - he just wants to humiliate him.’ Seconds before addressing the live crowd, Fletcher makes a beeline for his smiling drummer to utter the insidious words: 'I know it was you.’ Before Andrew can fully rationalise any consequences, the band is turning sheet music for a track called 'Upswinging' that is unknown to Andrew. He has not been given the same pages, and has been left to spiritually die on stage. No artist is great enough to hear a new piece of music and improvise on-the-fly. Fletcher's cruel plan has no escape from the brink. After muted applause from the stunned, yet respectful audience, Andrew exits the stage knowing his future career is now in tatters. The New York audiences, Fletcher reminds his players beforehand, 'they never forget.’

Damien Chazelle's ensuing film project after "Whiplash" would win him the Academy Award for Best Director, and set a new record for the youngest recipient in this category. That film was another jazzy endeavour, the excellent "La La Land" (2016), but even the most fervent admirer must surely concede that the final blistering ten minutes of "Whiplash" are unlikely to be equalled in any subsequent Chazelle production. (The 2014 film itself won three befitting Oscars in editing, sound mixing, and supporting actor.) Andrew takes control of the performance. His instinct was to retreat, but the artist in him would not be discouraged. He orchestrates a phenomenal rendition of 'Caravan' and Chazelle's tight camera proximity and airtight, focused editing restrict our perspective to Andrew's subjectivity and the visceral exertion of effort. There are no audience reaction shots, but we surmise that they now realise this young man can drum. The musical piece is completed and the lights dim to darkness as the orchestra ceases, with one exception. The drummer keeps playing, gradually unleashing a solo for the ages (and reminiscent of the famous Buddy Rich performance). Fletcher is angry, then confused, then begrudgingly forthcoming, until these negative emotions give way to awe and wonder. He is witnessing greatness, summoned from his own twisted strategy of a cymbal launch. Did Fletcher predict that Andrew would return to his drums, or be content with hugging his father and going home to lick his wounds? I would argue he probably did expect a retaliation of some form.

The psychology of this apogee is top-notch. The viewer is immersed in Andrew's every strike. When a cymbal is knocked sideways, the steadying hand of Fletcher invades our perspective. These two men may hate each other, but at this precise moment they are in communion. Andrew is playing the tempo of Fletcher's perfectionist dreams. The latter guides him through the remainder of the solo, which may not have been a necessity because Andrew is the one now cueing the conductor, but Fletcher's ego must feel vindicated in being a crucial purveyor of the artistic genius. When the trance of a divine performance is awoken, Chazelle juxtaposes a pair of extreme close-ups of their eyes. Andrew's joyful eyes crave his master's approbation, and Fletcher in that moment is reciprocating. The student wanted to be perfect, and I am reminded of a dialogue line from "Black Swan" (2010), that comparable story of an aspiring ballerina. The impresario states that to achieve perfection it takes more than memorising and mastering every single movement. It requires letting yourself go, and surprising not only the audience but yourself. On this very evening the stars aligned as Andrew went from worst to first in those few minutes. He experienced an out-of-body apotheosis through his magical flight, but the unresolved inquiry is whether it heralded the death of his human self in the transfiguration.

For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/

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