written and directed by Damien Chazelle
The original version of this review was published in the online magazine Examiner in 2015.
“Were you rushing or were you dragging?” With those seven words, jazz conductor and professor Terence Fletcher goes down in film history as one of those memorable bastards you love to hate, a condescending asshole who abuses his students when they can’t achieve the levels of dexterity he expects of them. As he belittles young drummer Andrew Neiman in front of the whole class, slapping him and insulting his lack of tempo, Fletcher is truly a villain as menacing as Voldemort was to Harry Potter.
Whiplash takes place in the high-pressure setting of a music conservatory in New York. It’s told through the point of view of Andrew, as he competitively – and obsessively – tries to rise in the ranks and become one of the greats. And in meeting Terence, he not only finds someone to look up to, he also finds a formidable foe. The movie plays up the dynamic between teacher and pupil through a series of confrontations that escalate until violence erupts, Tom Cross’ rhythmic editing keeping time with Justin Hurwitz’ fantastic jazz score. But it’s also kind of cold and one-note: Both Teller and Simmons come dangerously close to becoming caricatures by film’s end. As Andrew, Miles Teller nails the frenetic drive of a jazz prodigy, but it’s never clear what’s behind the drive, why this is so damn important to begin with. And while J.K. Simmons – in an Academy Award winning performance – smolders as Fletcher, his actions are all too extreme to see the dedicated music lover underneath, the one who believes he’s supposed to “…push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity.” Their push and pull may be dynamic, but it also feels a little repetitive.
Even with these shortcomings, Whiplash creates a very specific world and does it well – writer/director Damien Chazelle based the script on his own experiences as a young jazz student in high school, and he brings enough energy and swagger to the proceedings to make him a filmmaker to watch. He scores the most points in the film’s powerhouse final minutes, as Fletcher sets Andrew up to fail miserably at a jazz concert. But Andrew just won’t have it. As he breaks into Juan Tizol’s elaborate jazz standard Caravan, convincing the band to play with him, both him and Fletcher finally see each other as equals. It is here that Whiplash comes full circle with its motif: The only way to shape the next Buddy Rich is to build him up by breaking him down. Because otherwise how can true, unadulterated genius be discovered?
You may not agree with the idea of bullying as a catalyst for talent, but one thing is certain: The last shot of Andrew hitting the cymbals as the camera pushes in on him and the music reaches its climactic final chord is sheer cinematic perfection… and a great reminder of the power of film.
Carlos I. Cuevas