It is rare to see a movie with such a singular focus. Normally a lack of subplots or other character points of view would result in a flat and one dimensional film. Whiplash is only interested in the journey of Andrew Neiman, a shy musical student who is slowly consumed by the desire to be the absolute best at what he does. And by having the movie mirror Neiman’s drive (as really nothing else matters) the result is an astonishingly brutal, yet honest, film that explores the question: is it all worth it?
Whiplash was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. He also co-wrote the gloriously claustrophobic 10 Cloverfield Lane but is best known for writing and directing the smash hit La La Land. Based on his own experience of being in a highly competitive jazz band, the movie focuses on the meek but determined Neiman (Miles Teller) and his relationship with the emotionally abusive teacher, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher runs the best jazz group in the prestigious Shaffer school of music. He invites Neiman in after witnessing him – thinking he was alone – unleash on a drum kit.
The movie opens with this shot. A long corridor at the end of which is Neiman. The camera zooms in slowly but unwaveringly as drums are thumped and rhythms pounded out. Throughout the movie, the focus is only ever on Neiman, on Fletcher, or on drums. Other characters flit around the sides only as crashing cymbals to their beat. And we very quickly see just how manipulative Fletcher is.
The facade drops and he hurls out verbal abuse that would make drill sergeants blush. He belittles and insults. But even so this isn’t a caricature of a man. Simmons gives his devil some angel by having a light behind the eyes: his genuine belief that his methods are best. Chazelle directed Simmons to go beyond the limit of obsession and in the long scenes where he insisted on the right tempo again and again and again give the movie the powerful clarity it has above other such examples.
Whiplash isn’t structured like a normal ‘against adversity’ movie of its type. Instead of the usual ‘moment’ where the looked down upon student wows everyone and gains respect, Neiman remains under the thumb regardless of how well he performs. He has no positive relationships with his classmates, nor does he want them. Teller’s performance is fantastically engaging because whilst you root for him initially, you also watch how he sabotages himself by caring for nothing, but nothing, other than being one of the greatest all-time jazz drummers. The movie, through Fletcher’s calculating abuse, constantly asks the question, ‘Is it worth what it takes to be the best?’
Special praise must go to the editing in Whiplash as it really accentuates the music and brings it centre stage. Close ups of instruments are cut together during musical flourishes. Staccato jazz beats synchronise with camera changes. You see the sweat pouring off Neiman and you see the cymbals resonate with each strike. You feel what it is to be utterly committed to your craft and to glory in it. Suffer for it. And the score? Well, obviously that’s sublime!
Whiplash is in many ways quite minimal. The scenes with Simmons and Teller are at the centre of everything and they have such chemistry it is easy to see why. But by being so focused the movie gets you into that headspace extremely effectively. When we finally get the whole thrilling performance at the end, well: movies don’t get much better than this. And if you loved Whiplash then check out Kurt Cobain Montage Of Heck (review here) for a revolutionary documentary about the great artist.
Update: Unfortunately, Whiplash is no longer available on Netflix. You can buy it on Amazon but it is not included with the Prime subscription.
Words by Michael Record