Music Is A Bloody Sport In Sundance Hit 'Whiplash'
Whiplash, an early entrant to this year's fall movie season, is a film of small scale that blends the physical elements of the two biggest films of last year. 12 Years A Slave put the viewer face to face with the brutality and abuse that the human body endured under the forces of a state-endorsed institution, while Sandra Bullock's body was flung through the kinetic forces of science in the highly immersive Gravity. Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle's second feature, captures the physical and emotional abuse that Andrew (Miles Teller) puts himself through in order to achieve the high-flying, jazz drumming acrobatics of his idol Buddy Rich.
Going further back, the film's plot is also a mashup of Powell and Pressburger's Red Shoes with Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Andrew can't stop himself from obsessively drumming to the point of profuse bleeding in order to become the greatest, and he must also do so under screaming tutelage of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a drill sergeant of a bandleader who leads the most advanced jazz band in the film's Juilliard-esque music conservatory. Cinematographer Sharone Meir's camera and the work of editor Tom Cross is brilliant at capturing and combining the rapid-fire individual elements of Andrew's drumming (snare! hi-hat! kick!) that make up both the visual and audio choreography of jazz. The film also employs its cross-cutting montages to great effect by using its tempo to depict Andrew's level of mastery during each phase of the film. Andrew is certainly talented at first (Teller does most of his own drumming in the film), but he is Animal-like sloppy and languid, and must learn to refine himself to achieve the controlled chaos that is the most proficient and technical of jazz drumming.
Chazelle's camera also lingers on the faces of Andrew and the rest of his bandmates as Fletcher barks and throws furniture at them off-camera, as if waiting for the soloist to finish and anticipating their cue. Andrew's face makes for a fascinating close-up: a pretty-boy pocked with scars, already showing the signs of wear from his grueling quest (in reality, Teller got them from an incident that, SPOILER: eerily parallels a scene from the film). Fletcher's physical and emotional abuse can cross the line from banal torment into over-the-top macho slurs and nonsense the film uses as cheap jokes. Simmons, a very fine actor otherwise, is essentially left screaming at 11 and turning Whiplash almost into a ridiculously silly one-man show. It's far too easy to conflate screaming your ass off with a Great Performance these days.
While Teller and Simmons being at loggerheads makes up the ostensible dramatic drive of the film, Chazelle knows it's all about the music. Instead of relying on Simmons' shouty nonsense, the film's climax has the two characters sort out their mutually self-destructive relationship over a performance that is simultaneously a cliched finale (for a script of familiar tropes and twists) that could've been written into a boxing movie while also being sincerely triumphant. Whiplash is a film that understands music and its physicality, even if it falters in other respects.
Whiplash opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, with a wider release to follow.