So a mini-budget independent movie – centred on the relationship between a jazz drummer and his teacher, no less – ended up winning three of the five Oscars it was nominated for, reaching the top fifty on IMDb’s all-time user rankings, and earning a tenfold profit over its $3.3m financing? This is not to mention that its director, Damien Chazelle (just turned thirty), has only a few other credentials to his name: his debut directorial feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (also based upon a jazz musician), and the hugely underrated Grand Piano, another intense musical movie well worth checking out (we’ll forgive and forget The Last Exorcism Part II – bills don’t pay themselves). While none of those achievements necessarily guarantee actual quality, Whiplash is undeniably one of the most original and aggressively entertaining films of the decade so far, and that it’s garnered such a hugely positive reaction is at once surprising and utterly satisfying.
Jazz, which can so easily evoke chaos and exuberance, is the perfect genre to soundtrack a movie such as this, one of life-crushing ambition and gruelling pedagogy. The combustible interplay between Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an aspiring drummer at the fictional Schaffer Conservatory in New York, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), his conductor with the downright apocalyptic temper, occasionally recalls that of a frenetic full-band bebop performance. But much of Whiplash is also about maintaining control under such circumstances, and Fletcher consistently commands complete precision from the fledgling drummer, despite the cross-eyed complexity of its title composition that Andrew is forced to practice for, sometimes, five hours straight. In his verbal attacks and physical abuse during emotionally draining rehearsals, Fletcher’s terrifying behaviour fuses with Andrew’s hyperkinetic drumming to create an atmosphere of delirious engagement that’s as harrowing as it is intoxicating.
Combining the editing practices of Edgar Wright with the rattle and charge of a runaway freight train, Whiplash bounds towards its exhilarating and exhausting conclusion in a torrent of blood, sweat and tears. But aside from being a merely visceral experience, Chazelle uses the brilliantly tactful Fletcher to ricochet the film between plot points and twists, oft-times with Hitchcockian levels of cunning. Indeed, the movie presents similar depictions of obsession to those favoured by the master of suspense, albeit with the sexuality inverted: where James Stewart’s character in Vertigo stalks Kim Novak until both characters meet their respective downfalls, Andrew in Whiplash jettisons his girlfriend on the basis that she’ll probably distract him from fulfilling his ambitions, becoming apparently asexual as he channels all his energy into his performances. Witnessing the student’s casual dismissal of everything peripheral to his drum kit is unsettling, as under Fletcher’s abrasive tutelage Andrew appears to lose every iota of his humanity, thoroughly addicted to chasing his dreams until he’s little but a frenzied garble of technical prowess.
Featuring real musical performances and shot in under three weeks – with sleep depravation, car crashes and cracked ribs occurring along the way – Whiplash is an entirely crazed and propulsive package from the ground up in terms of its pacing, its acting, its soundtrack and the way it tore through the festival circuit into wide release, eventually surprising all with Oscar glory. Such a history is testament to the movie’s blunt force stampede, one that screams beyond the edges of the frame with essentially one idea explored to maximum potential, and without anything resembling a gimmick or even an obvious selling point. Jazz rarely captures the popular imagination, drumming is not cinematic and some of the story borders on preposterous, but Chazelle created a monomaniacal hydrogen bomb with Whiplash, a movie that doesn’t outwardly demand attention, but works like a maelstrom once it’s given some.