How far should a teacher push their student in the name of greatness? This is one of the questions raised by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle’s jazz infused, high tempo drama Whiplash. This Sundance award winning film is Chazelle’s second feature after his low budget debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Although the two films have very different plot lines, both are still heavily influenced by jazz.
When the extremely driven Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) enrols in the prestigious Shaffer conservatory school of music, he soon finds himself under the command of the formidable Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher is the ruthless and often abusive conductor of the school’s leading jazz band, a man who will sacrifice anything in the pursuit of greatness. The film is driven by the intense and rather unhealthy relationship between teacher and student, a love-hate relationship whose force of attraction is pushed to its limits, and like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), Whiplash makes effective use of its percussion dominated soundtrack to parallel this dynamic; the scattered sound of the jazz drum increases tension and propels the audience through the narrative.
Fletcher’s unconventional teaching practice, which is mostly made up of abusive language and occasional physical assault, is not only designed to push his students to become the best possible versions of themselves, but to go beyond this into the realm of musical genius. Fletcher justifies this treatment by frequently repeating the well-known tale of how drummer Jo Jones almost decapitated Charlie Parker for making a mistake by throwing a cymbal at his head. According to Fletcher’s version, it was this act of physical violence that then motivated Parker into becoming one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. The film’s narrative leaves the audience questioning whether or not the ends always justify the means, and how much one is prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve world recognition.
The perfect marriage between soundtrack and editing creates an almost uncomfortable level of tension carried throughout the film and which is only enhanced by the two main leads’ electrifying performances. The recurring use of extreme close-ups, fluctuating between instrument and body parts, makes the audience more aware of the physical sensation and strains involved in musical performance. Although one could argue that physical strain is common when playing any instrument at such a high level, Fletcher’s methods add a new brutal element to this physicality. A particular scene that comes to mind is when Fletcher repeatedly slaps Andrew’s face in an attempt to teach him the correct tempo of the musical piece they are rehearsing.
Like any great jazz song, there are slower moments within the film that allow the audience to catch their breath, and that form a touchstone to the rest of the film’s charged energy. These moments are formed by brief glimpses of the few normal aspects of Andrew’s life and are mostly dominated by his father and his girlfriend. Although these scenes are necessary, the two characters feel somewhat underdeveloped; Andrew’s father comes across as somewhat two-dimensional whilst his girlfriend’s presence is almost non-existent. This said, it is hard to imagine Whiplash dealing with these aspects in any other way, as the development of other relationships, beyond that between Andrew and Fletcher, would detract from the tempo and intensity of the film.
Whilst there are numerous distinctive scenes, one of which involves Fletcher forcing three drummers to repeat the same sequence over and over until one of them succeeds in meeting his standards, none compare to the film’s finale which leaves you exiting the cinema physically shaken. It is rare to witness such a pitch-perfect ending, and Whiplash not only manages to grip its audience from its very first slow and menacing tracking shot, but also finds the exact moment in which to release them, breathless, from its grasp.