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WHIPLASH

January 14, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterviewReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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When something as wondrous as Whiplash graces our screens, it’s impossible to deny that we’re dealing with the beautiful mind of a new, exciting filmmaking talent. Once credits start rolling after such a thunderous cinematic experience I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by absolute bliss, as if everything makes sense again in the universe. Pardon my hyperbolic romanticism but this is exactly the kind of cinema that electrifies me, makes my creative juices flowing and suddenly I remember why I pursued filmmaking in the first place.

Although this incredible indie sensation and 2014 Sundance winner (of both Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award) is the film that’s brought writer/director Damien Chazelle to the spotlight, the (barely!) 30 year-old filmmaker first grabbed the industry’s and critics’ attention with his Gotham Award nominated, minimalistic and already jazz-infused feature debut Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009), made whilst being an undergraduate at Harvard University. Yet in the midst of developing his own material to direct, the promising Chazelle has also worked as screenwriter for hire, penning titles such as Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano (2013), the Hitchcockian thriller starring Elijah Wood as a retired pianist who’s being threatened with a sniper’s red dot whilst performing his comeback in a packed theatre.

Jazz music isn’t the only element that Whiplash retains from Grand Piano and although the genre, premise, setting and characters are different, core themes like self-doubt, fear of failure and how far you can push yourself to overcome that fear when properly motivated are still front and center. Yet what amazes as you’re watching the film, is the crafty way the story of a young music talent who aspires to become one of the best jazz drummers in the world and the unorthodox (to say the least) teacher pushing him to questionable limits in order to achieve that, is told with such nuanced suspense and pathos that can rival any psychological thriller.

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Whiplash is the story of promising jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (a superb Miles Teller) who studies in one of the top elite music conservatories on the East Coast. Right from the very first scene we realize this kid’s life is focused on his music passion as we find him poring sweat over his drum kit whilst practicing like there’s no tomorrow in a lonely basement. He practically doesn’t have any social life unless you could consider the routine movie date with his dad (Paul Riser) such a thing. Even if Andrew is still a young man who’s not indifferent to the opposite sex and despite longing for a relationship as suggested by his fleeting glances at couples kissing in his school, he’s not confident enough to spark a conversation with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the cute girl who works at the movie theatre’s concessions stand.

Enters Terence Fletcher (a sublime J. K. Simmons), the conservatory’s most renowned teacher, not just for his experience as a conductor and musician but also for his terror-inducing, borderline-abusive teaching methods. When Fletcher spots Andrew and asks for the kid to be transferred to his class, Andrew has barely seen the tip of the iceberg of what’s ahead of him. At first recruited as the alternate who turns the music sheets for the core drummer, Andrew immediately gets a taste of Fletcher’s unpredictable modus operandi when during practice, the man gets ticked off by the core drummer’s lack of proper tempo as the band practices an extremely hard composition called ’Whiplash’ and he abruptly makes Andrew step in as the core player. Andrew is over the moon and the confidence boost he gets from such an unexpected development gives him the courage to ask Nicole out on a date.

The following day though, Andrew learns that with Fletcher you can become old news pretty quickly and when the despotic teacher gets unrequited and keeps interrupting the practice session, picking on Andrew for messing up by constantly spouting a petulant “not quite my tempo”, things spiral out of control. The rest of the class observes the scene with stupefied and terrified eyes as the man yells derogatory terms, slaps Andrew’s face to give him the correct tempo and eventually throws a chair at the boy who ducks right in time to avoid it. It’s painful to watch Andrew break into tears in front of everyone as Fletcher calls him a sissy because his mommy left him and his daddy is a failed writer. Like others have already pointed out, the energy and mood of the film feel like Full Metal Jacket meets Dead Poets Society on steroids.

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The central dilemma here is a thought-provoking one, especially in this day and age where the obsession with career success and the ruthless competitiveness that comes along with it seem to often spoil the enjoyment of one’s artistic passion: how far would you go in order to be one of the bests in your field? After Fletcher humiliates him, Andrew seems willing to go the distance and not give up but the psychological abuse he’s victim of pushes him to isolate himself even more from the world around him in order to practice until his fingers bleed on the drum kit. And the few occasions when he sees his dad or Nicole become a showcase of his newly acquired, Fletcher-induced, nasty, cynical attitude that has us worried he might turn into a monster.

When I had the pleasure of meeting Damien Chazelle during the BFI London Film Festival in October for Whiplash’s European premiere, I told him how Fletcher almost felt like the incarnation of Andrew’s self-doubt and insecurity. The talented filmmaker agreed: “artists tend to create or need or thrive on enemies to some extent, either you have an external one like a Fletcher in your life or you create one in your own mind and become your own bully, repeating to yourself: ‘not good enough’. That’s just a by-product of the artistic process but it becomes really tricky, difficult and morally questionable when there’s this other person who just decides for whatever reason that they’re going to push you maybe beyond what’s morally acceptable.

There’s a key moment in the film where the intense teacher tells Andrew that the worst possible words he could ever hear are “you did a good job”. I asked Chazelle if it’s ever ok to give up, even if only tormented by self-doubt, rather than having a Fletcher pushing you. The filmmaker wisely explained: “I try not to take a side in the movie, since these questions are difficult to answer and I don’t pretend to have the answers. There’s something to be said for giving up if it means that you’re actually embracing a life well lived or being a compassionate human being or having a soul or whatever. The idea of course is to try to have both: achieve your dreams professionally or otherwise but also be a good person, be happy and be fulfilled and that’s the sort of ideal scenario but that’s a really hard scenario to achieve and probably what every artist tries to achieve. But a lot of times you wind up with versions of Andrew, you wind up with people who decide for better or for worse that they’re going to take the suffering because they’ve decided that is what they need.”

The brilliant filmmaker has molded the story upon his personal life experience as a young drummer in a conservatory-style high school jazz orchestra but contrary to what one might automatically infer, he didn’t quit music and moved to film because of the hardships of what he went through with his teacher. He clarifies: “film was my first love and music was more of a phase in a way, granted it was a very intensive, obsessive phase as it became my life for a good five years or so. Yet it was sort of easy to return to film after that because I’d been there first but definitely my time with music was a weird, intense pressure cooker kind of experience with a tough teacher and a cutthroat type of environment that I wanted to capture through film.

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Chazelle’s awe-inspiring bravura in capturing that world in Whiplash is a magnificent concoction of tight script, elegantly smooth camera moves, slick cinematography, virtuoso editing, infectious jazz music your feet won’t be able to resist tapping to and your brain won’t be able to get rid of for days, and last but not least two of the most amazing performances you’ll be lucky enough to witness this year. Miles Teller is one of those breakthrough talents that need a film like this to explode despite having already proved his potential with his outstanding debut in Rabbit Hole (2010) alongside Nicole Kidman and his understated, nuanced turn in the absurdly overlooked The Spectacular Now (2013).

His transformation from timid teenager to ruthless overachiever is terrific and he couldn’t have a better counterpart than the amazing J.K. Simmons who portrays Fletcher with an inscrutable poker face, a Machiavellian psyche, the underlying tension of a ticking bomb that could explode any moment and yet the feeling he actually cares about Andrew succeeding. Simmons, a consummated character actor whose overly prolific career in both film and television is finally getting the attention he deserves with this role for which he just won the Golden Globe Award for best supporting actor that hopefully will be topped next month at the Academy Awards.

More taut, gripping, intense and unpredictable than any actual thriller you’ll see this year, Whiplash hypnotizes you from the moody dolly-in of its opening shot to the music-queued cut-to-black of its closing shot, keeping you on a breath-taking tension for its entire duration, waiting with nail-biting anticipation for the climactic resolution of what eventually becomes a battle of wits, a duel worthy of the best westerns.

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To capture the emotions he felt in his drumming years, Chazelle says: “I wanted to shoot each musical performance in the movie as though it were a life-or-death contest — a car chase, say, or a bank robbery. I wanted to showcase all the details I remembered — all the dirt and grime and effort that go into a work of music. The earplugs and broken sticks, the blisters and cut hands, the incessant counting and the beeping metronomes and the sweat and fatigue. At the same time, I wanted to capture those fleeting moments of beauty that music allows—and that film can so movingly capture.”

We can agree that the mission was successfully accomplished and the excitement is officially on for the writer/director’s next project, titled La La Land, currently in pre-production and starring once again Miles Teller as a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, played by Emma Watson. Don’t be fooled by this very first, simplistic and thin logline, after seeing Whiplash you’ll realize how Chazelle’s work is light years more than meets-the-eye.

Whiplash is available on DVD and Blu-ray from June 1st

Bonus Features:
– Commentary with Writer/Director Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons
– An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival with Mile Teller, J.K. Simmons and Damien Chazelle

Blu-ray Exclusives:
– Timekeepers – Famous drummers discuss their craft and passion for drumming
– Whiplash Original Short Film with Optional Commentary
– Deleted Scene with Optional Commentary

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor