Film Review: Whiplash

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Blood, Sweat and Tears

For J.K. Simmons’ disciplinarian, drill-instructor shaming music tutor, there are no two words in the English language worse than “good job”. Good job, as a highly tasked, greatness chasing Miles Teller discovers, is venerating mediocrity; it’s a patronising slap on the back for those unwilling to push themselves further; a rubber stamp from a world divided into comfort zones inhabited by content, middling actors who produce nothing of note, filling culture with their half-baked, that’ll do, I’m reasonably happy with it, are you sure you don’t want another take Mr Eastwood, so so-ables.

Consequently one feels a lot of discomfort watching Damien Chazelle’s movie. It’s a film about and characterised by, excellence; a production driven by the same standards of pace and exactitude advocated by its sadistic mouthpiece. Thematically resolute, meticulously composed and notable for bravura editing from Tom Cross, Whiplash is as close to a perfect film as you’re likely to see. Try listing its deficiencies and feel your mouth go dry and brain fog over.

One can point to the captivating performances from Miller and Simmons and have a great time doing so, but Chazelle’s flick really scores by having the courage to push its potential reaching manifesto all the way, and in so doing, excising the specious guff, the moral and ideological imposition, that blights a million and one similar dream chasing movies.

Exhibit A, Teller’s pursuit of student and part-time cinema usher Melissa Benoist. In most movies this tentative relationship would form the so-called heart of the movie and the trajectory would be clear and inescapable. Simmons pushes Teller to extremes, he neglects his sweetheart, the audience cries foul and finally, belatedly, Teller realises what’s important, tells his teacher where to get off and rushes to Benoist’s arms, hoping to catch her before she gets on a plane to London or some such. Not a bit of it. In a moment of epiphanous honesty, with Teller exhibiting the kind of self-awareness so many of us wished we once possessed but didn’t, he cuts the relationship short, conscious that the commitment and all-consuming obsession that characterises the highest achievers is incompatible with another human’s boorish emotional needs. That’s right, no breaking off drumming practice to cuddle up in front of a Friends marathon for the man hoping to emulate the likes of Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker.

Later, with Teller down and vulnerable, he contacts Benoist in a moment of weakness only to find that his nice but dull ex has already moved on, and not only that has a boyfriend indifference to jazz. An audience, robbed of their romantic reconciliation, is administered a collective slap to the face and a reminder that Whiplash isn’t playing at this self-sacrifice for greatness thing; Teller’s art is all that matters. The moment we’re building toward, the point where raw talent becomes cultivated artistry, cannot and must not be disrupted. Story and story design are one.

That Whiplash achieves that greatness, in a magnificently edited final drum solo, reaching its peak performance alongside the in-story protagonist, is testament to the good judgement of all concerned. Chazelle’s crafted a movie resplendent with flawed characters, ambiguous motivation, conceptual clarity and lyrical beauty. You can’t have a movie that demands the best falling short and Whiplash doesn’t. Instead it places a looking class on genius; hard work and sacrifice in pursuit of immortality, a journey so few of us are willing to make. The movie asks, why? You’re left in the dark, uncomfortable, scrambling for an answer.

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Country: US

Year: 2014

Running Time: 107 mins

Certificate: 15 for blood on cymbals, leaving the scene of an accident, and talking in the cinema.

10 Responses

  1. scott beaven says:

    Dont really agree with much of this review. Melissa Benoist? Sorry. If you want great contemporary relationship reversals, try Olive Kitteridge. Or even, possibly, the Danish TV drama, The Legacy. You are way overstating Neyman’s single-mindedness; it is just immaturity. Most foul-mouthed film I think I have ever seen, and that is a flaw, not as you and others think, ‘great writing’. I once attended an Irish swearing competition and this comes close.
    It is well acted and edited, no disputing that but gets lost several times by back-of-a- fag-packet attempts at drama and conflict; the car-crash scene for one, I would have come up with something much less melodramatic and the ‘I’m gonna keep you up to midnight until you get it’ scene, again, just over-the-top. Watch Wolf Hall, currently running on BBC to see how it can be done. The end didn’t work for me either: the coincidence of him walking past the club where Simmons was gigging and then Simmons thinking that through and building upon that coincidence to get him up on stage at such an important concert. More back-of-a-fag-packet writing; basically it’s an actors/directors film, not a writers movie at all.
    Lastly, and it doesn’t much matter because it isn’t actually a film about jazz, Buddy Rich was a show-off and a boor. It would have been so much more authentic if Simmons had been citing Art Blakey or Tony Williams and Nyman’s hero had been Tyshawn Sorey.

  2. Tim Earnshaw says:

    Vin Diesel’s performance as Professor Shorofsky is career-defining.

  3. Tim Earnshaw says:

    Jeez. I wish Scott Beaven hadn’t put me right. There I was thinking that this is the greatest film about a musician (no drummer jokes please) I’d ever seen. Now he tells me to watch – gosh – some TV instead. Then he says this is the most foul-mouthed film he’s ever seen, and I start to have my doubts about Mr Beaven’s authority as a movie-goer; is this the only movie he’s seen? Then he tells me “it isn’t actually a film about jazz” and I think we’re both reading from the back of the same fag-packet, because I don’t think anybody ever made a claim for it to be “about jazz”, but he loses me again by suggesting some drummers (that he’s heard of – impressive) that would have been more “authentic” than Buddy Rich. Which kind of shows me he hasn’t a fucking clue what the movie’s about and the rest of his comment is just the self-pleased posturing drawl I thought it was in the first place. But at least I don’t have to watch any Danish TV dramas to find out how this sort of thing is done better, which is a relief.

    • scott beaven says:

      Since posting my review I have had second thoughts about this film, in fact I went to a party on Saturday night and I have to admit that mine was the minority opinion. I liked the idea of taking a young [white] student’s perspective and showing how hard he found it to make sense of what was going on around him. It was disappointing to be honest that all three students competing for the drummers stool were white but perhaps that simply reflects real life, at this school. Overall however, I would have liked there to be greater variety of tone and mood.

      Friends are saying that I am applying the wrong criteria, forget plot holes, forget tone, forget mood, the director gets to the centre of what matters; the struggle to be a great musician. The fact that the production is also blessed with a fabulous central performance, is just a tremendous bonus.

  4. Guillermo Garcia says:

    What I don’t understand is how Ben Affleck has won TWO Oscars for writing and producing mediocre, predictable films and the director of Whiplash is not nominated in those categories.

    The finale of this film was the most intense and dramatically fulfilling of any film I have seen in a very long time, and the music was such a breath of fresh air in our shiza commercialized stage in music history.

    I agree with the reviewer, a practically flawless film.

  5. Nyki says:

    This was one of the most stressful movies I have ever sat through. It was fraught with inner conflict. I was practically screaming in the theater. Excellent movie. Who ever said it was about Jazz anyway?

  6. Otto Von Dachsund says:

    Everyone in the film was dead and in their own predestined afterlife, or Hell. Whiplash is a story of two determined musicians who earned a spot in the next circle. This will all be revealed in the prequel.