Whiplash takes “no pain, no gain” to the next level.
The film telescopes on the idea of artistic achievement, strips it of all of its romantic idealism, then endorses it nonetheless.
Whiplash tells the story of a modern music student who aspires for greatness as a jazz drummer. At a top-notch music conservatory, he is discovered by a respected conductor who employs somewhat controversial methods of teaching.
Written and directed by 29-year-old Harvard graduate Damien Chazelle, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Chazelle’s second feature film, Whiplash first garned attention when it was featured on the 2012 Black List, a yearly list of yet unproduced screenplays with high potential. Chazelle adapted his original screenplay into a short film that went on to win a Short Film Jury Award at the 2013 Sundance Festival, which inspired enough interest to begin feature film production.
Whiplash begins late at night in a prestigious music conservatory in New York. Infamous jazz orchestra conductor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), notices Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practicing the drums late at night. He gives him a test run and is seemingly not impressed, but later invites Neyman to join his orchestra. Neyman becomes the only freshman in Fletcher’s prestigious orchestra and starts out as an alternate drummer. The band prepares for a series of jazz competitions, featuring classic pieces such as Don Ellis’ “Whiplash”.
Neyman’s pride turns to despair, however, when Fletcher reveals himself to be somewhat of a tyrant. He replaces his musicians on a whim and flings furniture at the sorry individuals who cannot play quite at his tempo, reducing grown men to tears. He often refers to the story of how jazz drummer Jo Jones flung a cymbal at saxophonist Charlie Parker’s head one night, which pushed him to his full potential. Fletcher is exacting, unpredictable and does not believe in doling out kindness, freebie style.
Neyman practices until his drum kit is soaked in blood and sweat. He is eventually promoted to core drummer.
Though it is his only chance at success, Neyman’s hard work leads him to a dead end – and therein lies the unapologetic realism of the film. While Whiplash is a film about jazz music, it is also a meditation on creative accomplishment. It speaks about futility: in pursuit of great art (or great anything, for that matter), how far can hard work and giving it ”everything you’ve got” take you?
The film portrays several different relationships in parallel: Neyman’s hit-and-miss romantic relationship with non-musician, Nicole; his destructive yet understanding teacher-student relationship with Fletcher; his deep, emotional attachment to the drums that becomes apparent each time he plays. Throughout the film, Neyman’s various attachments vie for his attention.
Neyman can have a conventional romance or he can dedicate himself to music, but he can’t have both. He accepts tradeoffs and makes decisions. Every decision he makes in the story has a final quality. In Neyman, Chazelle has sculpted a character of striking self-belief and determination that Teller executes with a balance of vulnerability and strength.
The mentor-student relationship between Neyman and Fletcher is the film’s other thought-provoking focal point. While Neyman’s silent, unobtrusive character seems like a foil to the course, muscular, no-BS Fletcher, both characters have an equivalent drive and intensity that threatens to ignore what is socially acceptable altogether whenever they take the stage together. In a way, the relationship is necessary – if Fletcher did not discover Neyman, there may well have been no Neyman to discover. Conversely, however, Fletcher’s perfectionism also threatens to extinguish Neyman’s drive.
Drawing from the tension of the storyline, Whiplash makes jazz music into a lively event. It employs rhythmic cinematography (brisk pans matched to a New York pace) with warm, brassy instrument close-ups and extreme close-ups, clear enough so you see the dust on the cymbals and spit from the trumpet as it drips to the ground. The camera also frames the drum set as a powerful instrument and the protagonist of the band’s performances, giving it a kind of majesty that cannot be perceived during a live performance.
While Whiplash is a projection of the realities of hard work and accomplishment, the storyline also captures the absurdness of the endeavor by treading between the realistic and surreal. Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher is undeniably overdramatized, and Neyman bleeds on the drums way too much. As the film reaches its climax, the plot takes several unexpected turns.
The film finishes with a breath-stopping climactic scene. It does not answer any questions about right and wrong. However, it is both an artistic revelation for Neyman and a subtle answer to his dedication.
A film about jazz music and a hardworking student, Whiplash presents the activities of artistic pursuit and dedication in full candor, revealing the sacrifice and ephemeral rewards that come with seeking the personal gratification of being “great.” It is both bleak and motivational – a reflection on a topic that has relevance as long as people remain driven.