By Sam Littman.
Is Whiplash the most controversial film of the year? In January, the film was anointed the American indie to keep an eye on through its festival run and eventual October release after taking both the Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. October has finally arrived and the hype is certainly justified, but who thought it would also be the most socially relevant film upon its arrival in theaters? The associations it may prompt are, of course, purely coincidental, but in the wake of the Adrian Peterson scandal, writer and director Damien Chazelle’s second feature might find itself squarely in the heat of the discourse on violence as a tool for controlling other’s behavior. A taut, utterly electrifying depiction of the brutal relationship between a jazz-drummer prodigy and the iconic conductor of his band at the preeminent fictional Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, Whiplash is the first American music-centric film since 8 Mile (2002) to turn the intensity up to 11.
Anyone that has seen the trailer, and practically everyone that has read a synopsis, will approach the film cognizant of the ferocity of the borderline preposterous student-teacher conflict. Teachers do not hurl potentially deadly objects at students’ heads or smack them repeatedly in the middle of class. The conductor standing accused, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), routinely inflicts psychological and physical harm to an unprecedented extent which may render him positively dismissible for some. He presides over his classroom much like R. Lee Emery’s Sergeant Hartman commandeers his fresh recruits in Full Metal Jacket (1987). The vulgar insults he spouts would have the side-splittingly hilarious misanthrope Malcolm Tucker of In the Loop (2009) nodding in approval.
In comparison to Fletcher, the feared contract law professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. in The Paper Chase (1973) more closely resembles Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). But even these characters did not physically assault their subordinates. How truly mad must one be to strike a student in front of a dozen of his peers, who remain silent, not just to ensure they aren’t next, but because they would be risking the opportunity to remain under the abuser’s tutelage. This is the power of the film, presenting one of the more unnerving moral quandaries a viewer may ever be confronted with in appraising the result of Fletcher’s method following the ravishing final sequence.
The student, 19-year old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), wants to be “one of the greats,” and the arduousness of this quest exposes the vast rift between success and virtuosity. He stays in the studio later than anyone and hammers on that drum set until it’s splattered with blood, until he finally gets Fletcher’s attention. Upon earning a place in Fletcher’s decorated band, the young musician precipitously devolves from a well-meaning, introverted kid to a hedonistic sociopath. In one of the film’s best scenes, Andrew makes a blatantly condescending remark about a rising star quarterback who is being celebrated at a family dinner, blurting out, “It’s Division Three.” It is an awkward and deeply melancholy moment that emphasizes just how detached and deluded Andrew has become. He’s scolded and told to leave the table, but he doesn’t care. He only cares about how future musicians will remember him when he’s gone.
Andrew arrives at Fletcher’s studio for the first time, the conductor beckons to him in the hallway, leans against the wall and advises with a gentle, calming tone, “The key is to just relax. Don’t worry about the numbers, what the other guys are doing. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” Mere seconds into his debut on the drums Fletcher nearly sends him to the hospital. “No wonder your mother abandoned you,” he says. And Andrew sits there and takes it. For an artist as possessed as Andrew there is no choice but to await his next call from the bullpen regardless of what is literally thrown his way. Fletcher is fond of the legend of 16-year old Charlie Parker fumbling a tune and having a cymbal thrown at him in disgust by Count Bassie Orchestra drummer Jo Jones and promptly shaking it off, responding, “I’ll be back;” in Fletcher’s twisted mind, that’s what enabled Charlie Parker to become “Bird.”
The recurrence of the Charlie Parker reference as an explanation for abhorrent behavior and an allegory for Andrew’s ascent, albeit an overt one, is just one of many outstanding features of Chazelle’s script, perversely riotous and structured by tremendously rewarding plant-and-payoffs. Chazelle’s vivid control of the frame, sound, rhythm and movement, maximization fetish and lamentable regard of women invite a strong comparison to Michael Mann. Whiplash is unapologetic bravura filmmaking of the Mann and Scorsese brand, replete with sequences of spellbinding excess that threaten to teeter into melodrama only to be lassoed back into thrilling drama territory and sustain the action with nuance and precision. Teller is tasked with communicating that essential nuance in counterpoint to Simmons’ savagery and in succeeding wildly affirms his stature as the leading talent of his generation. The charisma that Teller flaunted to great acclaim in The Spectacular Now (2013) is reserved for his frequently bloody interactions with his drum set; focus, seriousness and absorption of antagonism with little expression are the core requirements of the role, not to mention extraordinary physicality and dexterity on his instrument. The rhythm and physicality that define Teller’s biggest moments recall Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010), and the performance is certainly comparable.
The actions and plot points that could understandably be deemed either unrealistic or underdeveloped should, however, be evaluated in the context of the chaotic and sensorially overwhelming world Chazelle fashions, commencing Whiplash with a long tracking shot toward Andrew practicing feverishly in an ominously lit basement studio, the pace of the camera’s movement determined by the escalating tempo. The force behind the camera is intimidating, exerting control with shocking sequences early on that affirm its elusiveness and capacity to devastate with little more than a close-up on the perpetually seething conductor. The mania of the artists permeates every sequence, whether at Lincoln Center or the dinner table, all of which are amplified by the director’s instrument of choice, not a flute or trombone but the drum, the percussion instrument onto which one can project maximum physical fury towards a sublime musical result.
Every year a career character actor wins our hearts and crashes the bourgeois Academy Awards party. The actor is often not a particularly great talent, such as Bruce Dern, or a solid but not transcendent one, such as Richard Jenkins. It has always been clear to fans of some of the biggest movies in history as well as the critics that J.K. Simmons is a special actor. Before he was Fletcher, Simmons was already known as perhaps the top scene-stealing motor mouth in the business for his role as J. Jonah Jameson, the stingy editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle in the first Spider-Man trilogy. It is no wonder that J. Jonah James does not appear in the new films. He rose above Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Frances McDormand in the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” as a CIA higher-up, delivering as no one else could the subsequently beloved line, “Report back to me – I don’t know…when it makes sense.”
In both films Simmons is situated behind a desk. Chazelle rescued him from the office and gave him a stage of his own. Miles Teller is the only actor in every scene but J.K. Simmons is no less the lead. The moral quandary Chazelle leaves us to interrogate following the mesmerizing climactic sequence will inevitably cause the audience to sympathize with Fletcher because the actor has transcended his craft and risen to the iconic: the man who has stood accused is revealed as J.K. Simmons, and we applaud.
Sam Littman is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
For more on Whiplash, see what our ‘In the Field’ writer William Repass had to say here.