DIR/WRI: Damien Chazelle • PRO: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak • DOP: Sharone Meir • ED: Tom Cross • DES: Melanie Jones • MUS: Justin Hurwitz • CAST: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Buried beneath a chromatic cluster of harmonic cries and timbered growls, lay the syncopated scattered sounds swelling across phrases that endlessly daze us. These vice-tight fists grip sticks stirring cauldrons of scuffled licks, with punches and kicks that beat the beat outta beatniks, on taut skin, taught to discipline dual-wielding squatters and double-time swatters. The pursed brass that play catch-up jazz are delicately bludgeoned in time as each pipped note is hounded and pounded to peek past perfection, where the words “good job” are pitched past a mention.
Damien Chazelle, with baton in hand attempts to slash through these sophisticated slabbed jabs of jazz in his second feature film Whiplash to uncover the cost of excellence. A story about Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a promising young drummer at Manhattan’s Shaffer Conservatory who becomes the latest student to endure the corrosive charisma of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a professor who recruits dulcet squeaks and toots in the pursuit of perfection
In the Opening scene Chazelle enrols his audience with a military drum as we march toward Neiman’s nook, slowly being ushered into a frame of mind crammed with pulsating dread. ‘I wanted to make a movie about a different side of music, about the fear and anguish of it’ the director tells Hollywood Reporter. Each shot is injected with anxiety; even New York’s dazzling skyscrapers are remoulded into looming towers that suffocate. For Woody Allen, jazz elevated New York City’s charm, varnishing each scene with fetching finesse, a gallery where audiences were being politely shuffled ‘tween trinkets of crafted pride. Chazelle has no interest in showing off his city, instead he smuggles us into multiple crevices, tucked away from lauded landmarks. The music infiltrates, stalking Neiman and scraping along concrete. It’s a soundtrack that rinses a city of comfort, leaving in its place a frenetic tension which swells to the size of Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks while waiting for a prick to pop.
Most of the action takes place in Fletcher’s rehearsal room where he prowls in search of his next victim armed with a seductive menace hinging on psychotic. But it’s psychosis with a purpose. He is a man seemingly honed to seek greatness. He spends no time loitering, in what he says, what he does, even his appearance is a reminder that no energy is lost on the mundane rituals of choosing clothes or hairstyles. All his concentration is invested in detecting musical excellence, and what Neiman might lack in talent he makes up for with a demented desire to be “one of the greats”.
Neiman soon becomes obsessed in adopting Fletcher’s relentless tempo as rehearsals turn into gruesome bouts of assault and subtle manipulation. The essence to Whiplash is held within the exchanged glances that Neiman and Fletcher throw at each other. There comes a point where all Neiman sees are Fletcher’s eyes beaming from underneath an ornately creased face as everything else in the frame and from his life become pushed past periphery. Niemen becomes utterly possessed in feeding perfection’s malignant appetite. His body, one of many donations soon becomes a mottled palette of self-abuse. The charm associated with Miles Teller from films such as 21 & Over (2013) and Project X (2012) become relinquished and what starts off as a likeable character becomes one so trapped within his own obsession that he not only pushes his loved ones away but the audience also. Even Teller’s appearance seems to flicker between cute and a boxer, battered beyond recognition.
The role of Fletcher could have easily turned into a one-dimensional drill sergeant lost in his own noise. Thankfully J.K. Simmons finds the right tone, a ferocious seduction that keeps audiences guessing. One second he’s peppering his jaded ensemble with acidic wry quips, the other he’s catapulting chairs across classrooms. Simmons manages to delightfully devour each scene without chewing the scenery. There’s a subtlety to the fury, a cerebral malice that murmurs between the currents of hardboiled rage. Though rarely, Fletcher at times can reveal a softer side, but through these inviting glimpses, our eyes can only make out the tactics and tricks that add to a greater vocabulary of manipulation, leaving audiences as tormented as his students.
Whiplash, like so many of recent films including, Mr Turner (2014) and Birdman (2014) deal with the perils of the artistic drive. However Whiplash takes a more brutal approach. What starts off as a student/mentor story quickly becomes a blistering blitzkrieg of be-bop jabs and backbeat hooks. A film that at times slips into a cautionary tale but neither condemns nor condones the way in which characters seek to achieve.
Chazelle’s camera escorts us through a turbulent route and in the end questions, was it worth it? On the one side Whiplash’s grand finale sees two musicians obtain what they set out to achieve but at a staggering fee. We find ourselves participating in a deranged duet where two people lost in a brutal scurry, salvage from the carnage, something worth remembering, only to become pummelled products of perfection’s pursuit.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Whiplash is released 16th January 2015.