By: Tim Cogshell
Damien Chazelle, writer and director of Whiplash, his 2014 Sundance Film Festival-winning second feature, is himself a musical prodigy of sorts. He attended the sort of prestigious musical conservatory his protagonist — played by the acerbic, ascending star Miles Teller — attends in Chazelle’s sharply realized, emotionally explosive film.
Whiplash, in fact, is a most appropriate title.
The “insider’s” perspective can sometimes burden a young filmmaker — or a filmmaker of any age, really. Knowing too much can be a trap; the inclination to “get it right” down to the last well-known detail can muddy a story and stifle narrative flow. And there’s the possibility — or rather, the likelihood — that the filmmaker’s personal experience is actually interesting only to the filmmaker. Chazelle avoids these pitfalls.
Whiplash, while stylish and slightly elliptical, is neither muddy nor stifling. It flows freely; it’s literally full of improvisations in at least two art forms, but like all good jazz, it always knows where it is and where it’s going. Rather than worrying about detail and realism — though Whiplash is meticulous and feels remarkably natural — Chazelle is concerned with making a film that’s just really good. And really good it is.
As for the subject, only the low-achieving and tone deaf could possibly find uninteresting a movie as absorbing as Whiplash. A freshman drummer at a fictitious but prestigious school of music, Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman listens to Buddy Rich records to cop his riffs, while sharing drumming duties with a much less accomplished guy in the school’s number two band.
One day, the devil walks in and asks Andrew to play. Of course, it’s not really — or even metaphorically — the devil; instead, it’s music instructor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons (best known for the HBO series Oz and for his long-running stint as the Farmers Insurance pitchman). Fletcher just happens to look a lot like the devil, especially all dressed in black and starkly lit as he continuously is in a film that looks as good as it sounds (cinematography by Sharone Meir; music by Justin Hurwitz). He taps Andrew to be the “alternate” in the school’s premier band, which in fact just means acting as a page turner for that band’s core player.
Then one day Andrew is asked to “take the chair,” as they say. All hell breaks loose, thus concluding our devil metaphor.
Consider this specific reference: R. Lee Ermey’s riveting, ball-crushing drill sergeant in director Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal 1987 Vietnam War epic Full Metal Jacket. Transpose that performance, wholly and completely, language and all, on to J.K. Simmons ball-crushing master instructor in Damien Chazelle’sWhiplash, and you will have the best reference for one performance to another than will ever be made — ever. Come to think of it, the whole war movie analogy is pretty much on the mark, but we shall stop here.
As for Whiplash, simply put, its theme adds up to this: At what cost perfection?
In the context of Chazelle’s densely woven story, the answer is also simple: Everything.
Whiplash (2014). Director and Screenplay: Damien Chazelle. Cast: Miles Telles, J.K. Simons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Max Kasch, Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair. .
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/