Back when I was just out of college, I had a conversation with some friends over a game of spades about what you would have to score on the rhythm ACT to play with various bands. We suggested that you needed about a 12 to play most rock and roll. You needed about a 33 to play with P-Funk. You needed about a 4 to play with the Sex Pistols. You needed to ace the thing to play with James Brown. That conversation, now twenty-something years in the past, flashed through my mind with crystal clarity while watching Whiplash (2014, directed by Damien Chazelle), a film that's all about precise rhythms. It's also a film about the sociopathy that often goes with creativity, particularly as it intersects with the kind of perfectionism geniuses often pursue. It's one of the most electrifying films I've seen in a goodly long while, a coming of age film played as a psycho-thriller. It's a head-cutting film in the musical meaning of that phrase.
Whiplash follows the fortunes of Andrew Neyman, a drummer enrolled as a first-year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. He's a jazz drummer who worships Buddy Rich and other jazz legends. While rehearsing late one night, he comes to the attention of Terence Fletcher, the head of the conservatory's studio competition band. Andrew is sure he flubs it when Fletcher asks him several pointed questions about his playing and gives him specific directions. It's an audition in all but name. Soon, Fletcher plucks Andrew out of his regular class and into his orbit. Initially, Fletcher tells him to relax, asks him about his family. He seems amiable. When class starts, however, the psychological games begin, as Fletcher pits his students against each other and against his own perfect standard of performance. He's abusive and manipulative, and he drives Andrew almost to the point of self-destruction. Andrew's burgeoning romance with the girl he meets at the movie theater is his drive for greatness's most notable casualty, but he alienates his family and eventually snaps. The cat and mouse game isn't over, though. Fletcher lays out his teaching methods in precise detail in an autopsy of what went wrong for Andrew, noting that the most harmful words in the English language are "Good job." If Charlie Parker hadn't had a cymbal thrown at his head, he wouldn't have become Bird. Fletcher is looking for another Bird, and he's ruthless about finding him. But he has a grudge against Andrew, and that takes center stage (literally) for the film's finale.
Coming of age films are a dime a dozen. Whiplash's star, Miles Teller, was in a pretty good one a couple of years ago in The Spectacular Now, to which this film strikes me as related. In both films, Teller is ultimately self-destructive. In both, the plot turns on a car accident. What The Spectacular Now does not have, though, is a villain. This film has that in spades. Whiplash has a whiff of brimstone. Terence Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons to horrifying effect, is one of the cinema's great monsters. There's a shot near the end of Fletcher's eyes as Andrew plays his final drum solo that are the eyes of the devil. There's a sense at the end of the film that Andrew has just signed his contract in blood (literally, as it so happens--there's a lot of blood in this movie). It's triumphant, sure. But it's ominous, too. By the time the film gets to that point, Andrew has already been infected by Fletcher's worldview. He's already on his way to becoming an asshole. The way he breaks it off with the girl he's sweet on is a total dick move and his drive at the end could only come from a well of deep misanthropy. He's totally Fletcher's creature in the end, and Fletcher gets what he wants: a drummer who can be his Bird.
This understands something about art that often eludes high-minded films: art is as much a bloodsport as it is a product of genius. This is a film about discipline; it's the kind of film that's usually made about the military or sports. Andrew is close cousin to Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. He's bound to break. He does break, actually, and while it's easy to blame Fletcher for this, there's something in the drive to make art itself that's at the root cause, too. Fletcher, for his part, doesn't coddle anyone. His assertion that the two most harmful words in the English language are "Good job" has a bitter ring of truth to it. His methods work, regardless of the body count.
This is essentially a chamber piece. It could be performed on stage with two actors, for all the importance of the other cast members to the story. They're generally chess pieces for the back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher. Both Paul Reiser as Andrew's father and Melissa Benoist as Andrew's girlfriend are good in thankless roles. Reiser exudes warmth, actuallly--any dad that takes his son to see Rififi at a revival house is after my own heart. This episode along with the film's home in jazz create a certain amount of anachronism, but that's neither here nor there. In any event, dad and girlfriend are outside the circle of the film's real interests. The other students in the studio band are all mostly props. The main attraction is the conflict between Andrew and Fletcher and Teller and Simmons play the hell out of it. Neither performance is a cartoon. Andrew, as the protagonist might be expected to have nuance, but Fletcher has a surprising nuance, too, given his role as the film's bete noir. He can smile, and murder while he smiles. The short interlude between Fletcher and Andrew near the end, when Andrew finds Fletcher sitting in with a jazz combo at a nightclub, finds both Andrew and Fletcher on common ground, though Fletcher eventually uses it for advantage in the game he's playing. This is a film where the performances are fun to watch. Boy, howdy, are they fun to watch.
This all works because the filmmaking is as tight as a drum head. It's easy to see how good the actors are, but part of how good they are is how the film is shot and edited. This is not a bog standard American indie film. The cinematography places the action in dark spaces. It's nighttime cityscapes are touched with neon or lit with sodium arclights. This gives it the patina of contemporary film noir, as if it had been shot by Gordon Willis, say. Its visual image is stylized. So are the beats of its editing. This is a film that's edited to the music--usually Hank Levy's Whiplash, which gives the film its title. I wouldn't be surprised if the filmmakers actually laid out the screenplay and storyboards underneath a musical bar so they could hit the beats (for what it's worth, some animators do this, most notably Friz Freling). Whatever the method, this film is precise. It could play with James Brown. It never drops a beat. In this, its form follows its function. It has an effect on the audience: The end of the film, when Andrew takes on Fletcher on his own turf, has a propulsive momentum to it and a breathless ratcheting-up of suspense. I mean "breathless" literally, because when the credits finally appeared, I realized that I was holding my breath. Most films about art are all head. This one is a punch to the gut.
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