“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”
Early on in Whiplash, we hear the story of how Charlie Parker got his start on the fast track to musical greatness. He was a young kid, who thought he was already great, and when he fucked up in-front of an audience, star percussionist Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at his head, and he was laughed off stage. In the world of Jazz, this is seen as a pivotal moment, because Parker cited it as having ignited the fire inside him to practice 15 hours a day until he was truly one of the greatest saxophone players that ever lived. But, would there have ever been a Charlie Parker without that flying cymbal? Did Jo Jones go too far? Whiplash throws the proverbial cymbal at both J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, daring them to be great, and proves that there is no such thing as “too far.”
Based on the Sundance winning short film of the same name, Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drummer student at a prestigious New York City musical conservatory. Andrew is rightfully motivated by a competitive spirit within the conservatory to be selected by the institutions most elite staff member Fletcher. To join his small group of the best studio jazz musicians in the school means being considered among the best in the country. Rightful motivation quickly spirals into unhealthy obsession, as Fletcher maniacally pushes Neiman to the most extreme limits by belittling and abusing him.
Director Damien Chazelle said that he “wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie”, and to that extent he has succeed, because I felt just as tense in my theater seat as I would watching the most harrowing of war movies. Whiplash is unrelenting in its intensity, never pausing before upping the tempo to the next extreme. Any exhaling moment that the film does take, such as scenes were Andrew goes on a date, or he and Fletcher sit to have a light conversation, are quickly undone by the unflinching conquest to achieve musical perfection and greatness.
Chazelle economizes greatly, never adding scenes that feel out of place or fluffy. The majority of the film takes place within this isolated chamber of music, and it works perfectly to highlight the isolation that Neiman is living through. He has no friends other than his worried father with whom he occasionally goes to the movies with. This isolation is signaled through the opening shot, a slow tracking zoom of Neiman playing the drums all alone- and continues throughout the entire film.
The dynamic between Teller and Simmons is what truly carries this film. Miles Teller continually proves himself worthy of being considered among Hollywood’s most exciting prospects, and after Whiplash I won’t be surprised when he pops up in the next Scorsese or Spielberg film. This role could have easily been botched by a young actor that could not match the intensity that J.K. Simmons brings to the table. Simmons inflicts an air of anxiety from the first second we see him on screen and will have you gripping your armrests anytime Neiman is under his gaze. This is the best I’ve ever seen J.K. Simmons, particularly the way he is able to turn on a dime like some kind of maestro Jekyll & Hyde — in one moment completely soft and sympathetic and then in the same scene, turns into a viscous monster. At his worst, Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher is reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket‘s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. One particular seen involves Simmons playing a sort of shell game, switching out 3 drummers to play only a few seconds of drums each time, claiming in an instant that they are off tempo, over and over again — all just to torture Neiman, in what he claims is an effort to make him achieve greatness.
While most will rightfully be heralding Simmons as Whiplash‘s biggest asset, it is Teller who ultimately impresses the most. Chazelle presents most of the film in tight close ups of Andrew Neiman’s face, the majority of the time no words are even spoken to convey the tone of the scene — but with an apparent effortlessness Teller translates what he is suffering through to the audience without a word. Teller brought only an elementary understanding of rock drumming, but through training for the film, never once appears to not be drumming the way the music sounds — while this may be a feat of editing, there are plenty of wide shots involving very complicated drumming, and never for a second are you distracted by how he plays.
This film is more of a trifecta though, with Teller and Simons filling out the first two spots, it is also the music that carries Whiplash to the finish line. Featuring an original score by Justin Hurwitz with original big band competition pieces by Tim Simonec, the soundtrack is a delight all its own. Chazelle uses the music in a great way, where these beautiful jazz songs have you tapping your foot in one scene and then feeling like Jaws is about to strike in the next. The vacuum created by the lack of music in certain scenes also works amazingly to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of Andrew Neiman’s quest for greatness.
David Chazelle’s Whiplash is simply put, a masterpiece of performance anxiety. Filmed in only 19 days and submitted to Sundance after only 10 weeks of production, that hastiness is transferred to the audience as a sort of manic fever — making it the first truly must-see film of the year. Whiplash‘s unflinching electricity will have you so tense in your seat, when the credits roll the impact will leave you both inspired and sore for days to come.