“Whiplash’ Lives Up to Its Name & May Be the Best Film of 2014

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At times, Whiplash moves at breakneck speeds, and carefully directed sequences feel dangerous and out-of-control for the characters, and take-your-breath away gripping for us viewers. For all its tense scenes of violence and abuse (verbal, physical, and psychological), and all its themes of punishment, betrayal, and retribution, this is not ‘Taken 4: The Stolen Drumsticks.” For unlike those movies, this film is at times subtle, manipulative, clever, forceful, explicit, and most of all, smart. It doesn’t kick in the door every shot, but it is boiling over with violence. Sometimes the tense action is a slow beat of a drumstick on a drum. Everything is portentous and filled with meaning, and wrought with tension. Perhaps what makes this film so special is that it is ostensibly a small and intimate story, but the screen is full and bursting with two epically outsized characters, vying for greatness, power, respect, and undoubtedly, love and validation. At first glance, one has all the power and talent, while the other has everything to learn and soak up from this ‘maestro.’ It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize the relationship is far more complex than that, and that both characters need the other. As is often the case in such stories, the student must overthrow the master, and usurp his place. Despite this familiar trope, Whiplash finds new and creative ways to tell such a story, and the gratifying part is anxiously witnessing how we get there. This is a small film, writ large, with a taut narrative, that dances across the screen like one of the complex jazz standards the orchestra plays in the movie. The film feels like a song we all know, but still capable of surprising us with each new turn and chord progression. It sings like a tight jazz tune, with its alternating time signatures and juxtaposion of scenes of various lengths and tempos. Even the text and the acting sings, simmering gently at times, as slack and deliberate as spoken word under an old jazz favorite, and steadily crescendoing into the bombastic wails of a bebop improvisation — reckless and dangerously out of control, yet virtuosic and unable to look away from. Whiplash is a melody so engrossing, and so expertly woven together, that the brilliance of its many moving parts seamlessly coalesces into a tightly conceived and harmonious film that captures our imaginations, electrifies the mind, and sets fire to the heart. Like all great songs, this film will stay with you for a while. It may not only be the best film of 2014, but an instant classic, worthy of many future viewings. In the paragraphs below, I’ll briefly reveal what makes this film great, but only abstractly describe the film’s features, without giving away any spoilers.

Perhaps the feature most overlooked in this film — yet most effective — is its unassuming simplicity and austere design concept. The film was made on a modest budget of $3,3 million, and that was even higher than I would have guessed. I suppose the NYC shooting costs may have bloated the budget, even if there are very few shots of NYC exteriors. At first blush, it feels like such a stripped down world. There’s nothing ornate or embellished here, and we rarely see anything outside of brief glimpses of Teller’s worn and lightly decorated dorm room, some shots on stage at Carnegie Hall, a dingy movie theatre, a brightly fluorescent-lit pizza joint, a smallish moderately lit dining room, with an extended family tightly packed around, and most frequently, the stark and dimly lit band room at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. I should note that each of these locations are small interiors to begin with, but then director Damien Chazelle shoots them in ways that make them seem even more claustrophobic. We never get wide shots that reveal the full dimensions of these rooms, and parts of the spaces are bathed in shadow. All of the movie’s locations are sparsely decorated, painted in muted colors, and feel tight, confining, and oppressive. Even the grand Carnegie Hall is shot in a way that you only see a smallish stage, and the footlights obscure a darkened audience, out of focus, and only vaguely one or two rows deep. In these small spaces, the characters are rendered big, and jostle for space in this world. In regards to the vastness of New York City, we get none of that. There are hardly any shots of the city.  In addition to the economy of scenery and setting, the script is quite lean, with a scarcity of characters. Never has New York City seemed so empty. There are few exterior shots with throngs of pedestrians, and the classes are only as big as a jazz orchestra would be — certainly no more than 20 students. As far as speaking roles, and semi-fleshed out characters, there is our two leads, and then quite a drop off, to the girlfriend and the father, who have roughly the same sized roles. Although there are the couple other drummers Andrew competes with, they have very few lines. The vast majority of the dialogue is shared by the two leads, and then the jazz music score provides the third most important voice in the movie. The lack of characters is deliberate, and clearly puts more focus on the antagonistic relationship of these two men. It feels epic, like when two of the ancient Gods would fight in the myths, while the lowly and powerless humans could do nothing but look on helplessly. The final design choice worth mentioning is the costumes. The cast is costumed in very forgettable drab clothes, with lots of black, white, and grey. Fletcher wears tight black t-shirts, a tweet jacket, and a stylish hat you might expect a jazz musician to wear. The effect is simple, yet stylish and appropriate. For this film, the canvas is dark, small, and virtually anonymous. This necessarily puts the spotlight on its two main characters, and sets the stage for a battle, much the way a boxing ring is stretched canvas, rope, and not much else. Such choices suggest that the protagonist, young Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) feels isolated, caged, and restless…ready to break free and prove he is one of the ‘great ones.’ He begins with the belief he has something special, and once he is singled out by Fletcher, he begins to truly believe in his talent. In this bare and drab world of the film, it is only Andrew’s playing that is rich, ornate, and full of color. This simple and restrained design choice was really effective, and focuses our attention on our two main leads.

Since the film takes place at a music school, you would expect there to be a lot of music in the film. There is. The film has incidental music that underscores the film; Teller’s character is seen a few times listening to his hero, Buddy Rich; the two young lovers are seen on their first date, and Teller easily identifies the music playing in the background at the pizza place. Most significantly, the band is seen rehearsing music several times in the band room, and then onstage at two different competitions. The music is nearly all jazz, and mostly uptempo and considerably hard to play. However, it is not hard to draw the conclusion that jazz music is a metaphor in the film, for the relationship between Teller and his combative and abusive teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). To understand the complex and often dichotomous nature of jazz (and by extension, the Fletcher-Andrew relationship), it’s important to understand jazz is made. Jazz is necessarily a fiercely competitive art form, while also conversely being shared and collaborative. Jazz musicians often compete against each other in solo stretches, and set the time and style individually. Yet, there are also ‘sound-offs’ of sorts, where instruments will wail and do battle against one another, and musicians have territorial grudge matches. However, much of this is done in good fun, and as a means to challenge and improve each other. Jazz is perhaps even more dependent on collaborative, and players must be generous with each other to create seamless melodies and richly layered songs. They have a shorthand with each other, and that is what allows them to improvise so freely, while surprisingly being all on the same page. Although jazz is mostly improvised, it still may have a clear goal and follow a general road map. Older and more experienced jazz musicians know all the tricks to create new and inventive music, while manipulating the score and making deliberate choices with an endgame in mind, much the same way a chess player makes a move — keeping in mind several moves ahead. What’s more, the music also alternates between a slow tempo and fast, and often has dynamic crescendoes and dramatic climaxes. The improvisational, reckless, bombastic, manipulative, clever traits that can be found in jazz music are exactly the words one could describe the relationship between Teller and Fletcher. Fletcher may improvise the manipulative chess moves he makes, but he has been doing this a long time, and knows the board well. He has an endgame in mind, and tightly controls the tempo. That is, until Andrew takes hold of the reins, and the proverbial bandleader duties are shared, and fought over. Like the tumultuous power and tempo of a jazz standard, the teacher-student relationship is volatile, while also undeniably rich, complex, unhealthy, and at times, brilliant. One can see that these two could either kill one another, or make sweet music together, as good as anyone out there today, Music is the lifeblood of this movie, and perfectly underscores the main conflict and tension between our leads.

The script and the acting might as well be discussed together, since they are inextricably linked. For all intents and purposes, the entire film was the brainchild of writer and director, Damien Chazelle. In high school, Chazelle was in a “very competitive” jazz band and drew on the experience of “just dread” that he felt in those years.[ He based the JK Simmons character on his former band instructor but “pushed it further” adding in bits of Buddy Rich, as well as other notorious band leaders.

Originally conceived in the form of an 85-page screenplay, Chazelle’s Whiplash came to prominence after being featured in the 2012 Black List that includes the top motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions teamed up to produce, and in order to secure financing for the feature, helped Chazelle turn 15 pages of his original screenplay into a short film starring Johnny Simmons in the role of the drummer and J. K. Simmons (no relation) in the role of the teacher. The 18-minute short film went on to much acclaim after screening at the Sundance Film Festivall, which ultimately attracted investors to sign on and produce the complete version of the script. The feature-length film was financed for $3.3 million by Bold Films.

At its core, Whiplash is the story of 19 year old drummer Miles Teller, who is in his first year of college at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, the best music school in the country. Early in the movie, he begins dating Nicole, a college student working at a cinema frequented by Andrew and his father. He aspires to become one of the drummer “greats”, like Buddy Rich. With many of his classmates knowing that an infamous Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate, Neiman successfully auditions for Fletcher in a surprise in-class band session. While Fletcher at first seems courteous and nice to Andrew, it becomes clear that Fletcher is a master at manipulating emotions, as when he abuses and harasses several of the band’s players. While practicing the Hank Levy song “Whiplash”, Fletcher makes Andrew the target of his abuse and throws a chair at him for not following the tempo. He slaps and berates him in front of the class, who silently watch. The movie follows this abusive relationship throughout, showing Fletcher use effective manipulative tactics, such as friendliness, trust, divulgence, praise, personal information used as a weapon, bribery, pitting students against each other, shame, scolding, withholding love and praise, the threat of physical violence and actual physical violence, verbal abuse, removing rewards, temptation, and likely, many more. One might conclude that Fletcher seems to see greatness in the boy, and perhaps is trying to break him down, only to build him back up stronger. At the same time, there’s indications that he is also jealous of the boy’s talent, and seeks to embarrass and humble Andrew. Actor Miles Teller’s journey throughout the movie is the most profound, starting out as a young and naive kid with dreams of greatness, to a more confident and ambitious musician, to a reckless and arrogant player, and on to something even greater by the end of the film. We see his confidence is often quite wrapped up in the opinions of others, particularly Fletcher. By the end of the movie, the viewer should be satisfied with how far the character has come, and where he ends up. In an interesting twist, just when we begin to think of Fletcher in a new and gentler way, he exposes his old self, and without revealing the clever turn of events that follows, Fletcher takes the plot in a new and interesting direction. The dialogue is sparse throughout, like much of the film, but very effective. The back and forth between the two leads becomes more complex as the film develops, and as the character of Teller becomes more self-aware, bold, and savvy, he risks standing up to his tormentor. As the film’s protagonist and antagonist vie for power, and battle each other verbally, and at times, physically, we are drawn further and further into the action, aware that this toxic relationship must end, but not knowing how. The script is smart enough to keep us guessing, and there are twists and turns, and satisfying reveals throughout. Teller and Fletcher’s relationship is complex, to put it mildly, as it superficially looks hateful and antagonistic, but not with time, we recognize it is actually deeper than that, and likely fueled by a desire to be validated and loved, jealousy, respect, an obvious father-son game of approval, a master-virtuoso dynamic, and undoubtedly many more. These two characters clearly need each other (even if they aren’t always consciously aware of that fact), all while being painfully aware of a mutual repulsion and violent antagonism. In the end, Chazelle provides yet another twist to this relationship, and I was very satisfied where each character ended up, and how they felt about each other. The ending is deeply satisfying, while still being about unresolved and unspecific about what comes next. This slightly open-ended conclusion was perfect though, and left you wanting more — in all the good ways. The character arcs of these two were ambitious, but brought the roles to new and interesting places. The script of this film was lean, economical, and contained powerfully charged dialogue. The screenplay was plotted cleverly,, alternating the size of scenes and providing an almost musical tempo, and essentially providing a road map for where the film had to go, at what speed, what volume, and what pitch and tone. This was an excellent, unobtrusive, unassuming, and reliably successful screenplay for a film of this scope.

There is no need to go into explicit detail about the acting in this film. It speaks for itself, and must be experienced first hand. Miles Teller is simmering in his performance as Andrew. At first, he seems quiet, shy, and naive, yet also determined, confident, and ambitious. Over the course of the film, he finds his voice, and becomes quite animated, volatile, arrogant, shattered/ broken, and finally, rejuvenated and effortlessly confident, while perhaps learning some humility. Teller plays him with such grace and honesty, and you can tell that this kid believes deep down that he may have greatness inside, and he slowly gets more and more ambitious, as he will do anything to prove it. He literally drums his hands bloody, in powerfully symbolic moments, as the dull set and the skins of his drums get covered in red blood. This color is one of the first instances of color, and is a striking image of how far he will go to prove he’s the best. He also sheds tears, or should I say a single tear. This occurs as Fletcher is screaming at him, and slapping him mercilessly. Fletcher shames and embarrases Andrew, but mockingly saying, “Oh, my God! Are you one of those single-tear people?” When he is forced to play an impossibly fast piece, as well as other moments of intense playing, Andrew soaks his clothes and sweat drips from every pore. The filmmaker shows close up shots of sweat dripping off his ears. We are quite consciously shown Andrew’s blood, sweat, and tears, and acutely aware of how far he is willing to go. I won’t go into details on the climax of the film, but I will say something quite shocking happens to Andrew, and what he is willing to do in the midst of catastrophe for the sake of performing and proving his greatness on drums is actually quite disturbing. From then on, there is no turning back, and that moment changes the direction of the film, and chooses the path it must invariably go down. Teller shows a man devoted, and disillusioned by his teacher. But what makes this performance even more impressive, is that Teller did it all while drumming in various songs, and in the end, performing an impressive extended solo. The songs are complex, and the role made harder, by moments when Fletcher makes him do it over and over, and the actor impressively makes subtle adjustments. I’m no musician, but he looked and sounded like the part, and appeared effortless and comfortable behind the drum kit. To my untrained ears, his playing sounded great.

Just the other evening, actor J.K. Simmons picked up his first Golden Globe for his portrayal of Fletcher, and it was well deserved. This inspired performance is one for the ages, and he transforms himself into a raging tyrant and sadistic brute. Hardly an inspiring teacher like Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society, Fletcher is more in the spirit of R. Lee Ermey’s savage portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. You get the feeling that if they didn’t respect his talent (or fear his fierce reputation), one of his students might kill Fletcher in a fit of rage, just as Pvt. Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence so famously did when he shot and killed Sergeant Harman in Full Metal Jacket. Or perhaps all the battered and abused students would team up and murder him as a pack, a la Lord of the Flies. In a tense and interesting scene some time after the events of the first 2/3 of the film, Fletcher and Andrew sit drinking at a bar, and Fletcher makes it clear that he does not regret a single thing he did in the classroom, and does not care what people think, because he is motivated by something greater. A purpose, if you will. He has an unwavering devotion to the idea of finding the next Charlie Parker. Or Buddy Rich. For him, that requires pushing students beyond the limit. He is convinced that the great ones will emerge, even through the roughest of circumstances. He goes on to say, that musicians must not be softened by praise, saying, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” Fletcher delivers such an intense performance, one is almost shaken from one’s chair in fear he’ll call on you. This performance will be remembered, and in a just world, also rewarded. But this time, by the Academy

I need hardly mention the immense contributions made by director, Damien Chazelle. It is his story, and without him, none of this happens. There is no need to elaborate any further on what a good job the director did. The proof is in every word I wrote above, from the design to the editing to the pacing to the acting, and every other impressive aspect of the film. I enjoyed his work, and look forward to seeing future films by this director. Whiplash is an inspired script, and a beautifully acted, directed, and designed film. It is a tightly wound story, with plenty of clever twists and turns, and a satisfying ending. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Enjoy. 

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