Survival of the fastest
Whiplash, drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3.5 chiles When it comes to a bandleader verbally abusing his musicians, Buddy Rich may have set the bar in the 1980s. The legendary drummer, then in his sixties, launched a series of tirades between and after his band’s sets, all of which were captured on a hidden tape recorder. It would be difficult to provide even an excised sampling of his verbal acrobatics here because nearly every other word is unprintable.
The divide between the calm control and professional demeanor of a band performing onstage and the seething emotions that sometimes belie all the preparation leading up to the moment is a key source of tension in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. The drama stars Miles Teller ( The Spectacular Now, 21 & Over) as aspiring teenage jazz drummer Andrew Neiman. Its opening blackout sets the percussive tone, with a long single-stroke drumroll crescendoing and accelerating in the darkness. The lights come up, offering the first glimpse of Neiman at his solitary practice behind the drums. He is in a dim rehearsal room at the fictional Schaffer Academy, a New York City conservatory presented as the best in the nation. At this point, Neiman is both innocent and earnest, ready to begin his studies and not knowing how quickly they will plunge him into a state of severe obsession — soon, even a car accident won’t keep him from his coveted spot on the drum throne for an important competition, even if that means stumbling out of the wreckage and running to the concert hall, his suit spattered in blood and his left hand hanging limply at his side.
The scene is particularly moving because the veil between the months of preparatory sacrifice and the brief minutes of performance is briefly and painfully lifted. But the physical whiplash Teller receives from the accident pales in comparison with the tongue- lashing he and the rest of the band are constantly subjected to from the school’s top instructor, Terence Fletcher (played by a riveting J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is not the kind of instructor who says please when requesting a drumroll. The controlling, foul-mouthed Jekyll-Hyde composite frequently reduces his players to tears, employing curses that would make even Buddy Rich blush. Adopting the false role of kind mentor, Fletcher tells Neiman before his first rehearsal in the top band, “The key is just to relax — have fun.” Shortly after this confidence booster, he mercilessly tears Neiman down, first comparing him mockingly to Rich (who happens to be Neiman’s hero), then belittling his parents (Neiman’s father is a failed writer and his mother abandoned the family), and finally moving directly into the realms of physical abuse.
Fletcher’s teaching strategy relies on pitting the players directly against one another, driving the top contenders like Neiman into pushing themselves to the point of bloodshed. In his quest to increase his hand speed, the young drummer develops seemingly never-healing blisters that leak dramatic quantities of liquid onto his instrument. Not since Michael Haneke’s 2001 thriller, The Piano Teacher, have blood and music been so forcefully intertwined.
Whiplash flirts with but ultimately strays from the standard trajectory of the rising and brilliant young musician. The film hammers home the point that unending sacrifice is the key to becoming “one of the greats.” Such are the words that Neiman employs when trying to explain and defend his dreams to his slightly two-dimensional love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But the film also proposes — and declines answering — the follow-up question: When is the cost of greatness too high? For Fletcher and Neiman, the answer seems to be never, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether this is something to admire or deplore. Less ambiguous, however, and perhaps more intriguingly explored, is how the power dynamics of a mentoring relationship can turn a teacher’s obsession into a student’s compulsion.
Visually, the film captures today’s New York City with realism and subtle beauty. Both choreography and editing are highly effective, especially in moments of performance when the perspective jumps from player to player, or between Neiman and Fletcher, creating an intimacy that transports the viewer not just onto the stage, but somehow even into the rollicking measures of the music itself. The music is likewise well adapted to the storyline, featuring an original score by Justin Hurwitz, big-band compositions by Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, and a few jazz standards. These include the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” (serving as the rousing encore piece of the film and delivering that craved-for epic drum solo), and the more-obscure Hank Levy composition “Whiplash,” a particularly hard composition defined by odd time signatures.
All the elements cohere in Whiplash, which is perhaps one reason why it won both the audience and grand jury awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. dramatic competition. Obviously a labor of love for Chazelle, who was himself a serious jazz drummer before transitioning his focus in college to filmmaking (this is the young filmmaker’s second feature, following his 2009 low-budget Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), the film obliquely hints that the obsessive drive necessary for a musician to achieve enduring fame may be just as necessary for an actor or director.
— Loren Bienvenu