Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Andrew Neiman has one goal in his life, to become one of the great jazz drummers. He’s a first year at the Shaffer Music Conservatory playing in one of many campus bands. He’s chosen by Terence Fletcher to join the prestigious Studio Band. Neiman quickly finds that Fletcher demands near unrealistic levels of perfection from his performers. There are verbal assaults which eventually lead to physical ones. Neiman starts sleeping in a practice room where he sets up his drum kit and pushes himself to go faster, have more control until his hands bleed. However, the tension keeps building, and Fletcher attempts to manipulate and twist events around Neiman that it is driving the young to the brink of a mental breakdown.
I didn’t catch Whiplash when it was in theaters but noticed the immediate buzz around the film. It seemed like Fletcher became such an iconic film character almost right away. Having seen the movie now, I can see why. Writer-director Damien Chazelle delivers such an exact film, made with precision. You can see his love of this music in how fluidly he cuts the performance scenes. Chazelle jumpcuts around the drum kit and the band, matching his editing rhythm with the music’s tempo. Even if you aren’t a jazz fan or aficionado, you feel yourself caught up in the momentum that surrounds the picture.
Fletcher is one of the great film villains which is a hard task to accomplish when so much about antagonists in cinema has devolved into cliche. The key to making the conductor so nefarious is that he is kept as an enigma up until the last moments of the movie. We never see Fletcher outside of the studio for the first two-thirds of the film, and we never see him talking about anything other than his demands of his performers. He is the Nurse Ratched of jazz, singularly-minded in having things his way and uninterested in hearing what others think. In the same way, Ratched uses coldness as her weapon; Fletcher uses emotional irrationality. Everyone is off balance because they don’t know what he will do as a response to anything.
The look of Whiplash is so stark, particularly in the studio performance scenes and final Carnegie Hall sequence. There is a golden richness to the lightning and makes the moments feel alive and vital. The sound is so sharp and precise that coupled with the image you have a film that vibrates with energy that we don’t often get in the cinema. I don’t like saying this often, but Whiplash feels like iconic cinema, more than La La Land. La La Land is referencing musical films so directly while Whiplash stands more singularly. I never thought I would say a movie about a student at a music conservatory got my adrenaline going, but I was coming out of my seat during certain moments.
Thematically Whiplash is exploring the nature of student/teacher relationships and the idea of Greatness. This isn’t the sort of safe, inspirational type of movie that sanctifies teachers a la The Dead Poets Society. Whiplash presents a teacher who you legitimately believe will kill his students. Even in the film’s finale, Fletcher clenching his jaw leans in and whispers to Nieman, “I will gouge your fucking eyes out.” Nieman is not protected or praised, and his triumph comes in spite of Fletcher. The one area the film leaves up to the audience to examine is whether Fletcher’s methods are valid or not. The teacher gives a monologue on what made Charlie Parker the best in the world, and it is rather convincing. Then moments later Fletcher unleashes his rancor on Nieman, and we’re left a little less sure.
Whiplash is a confident, tightly written and paced film. It takes an experience that isn’t necessarily relatable to most people but has the audience deeply invested in what happens to this young student. We don’t understand the lingo of jazz, but we know what it feels like to struggle, seemingly in vain over a passion. We all know the motivating power of a bully, intentional or not. Whiplash is a movie that doesn’t reveal whether Nieman will become one of the Greats, only that he has greatness within himself.