A Whiplash Review: Perfect Tempo

While filming Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle told J. K. Simmons, “I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.” And Simmons delivered masterfully. His character, Terence Fletcher, a music instructor whose violently unorthodox methods put fear in his students’ hearts, brought more life to the 2014 music drama epic than anything else. Of course, that is not to say that the other aspects of the film are any less compelling. Au contraire, everything about Whiplash is splendidly executed, the acting is top-notch, the score which contains both original music and a number of renowned jazz tracks is lively and exciting and the camera work is some of the best there is.

The plot, which was described by Chazelle as a sick sort of love story, revolves around ambitious drummer Andrew Neiman and harsh mentor Terence Fletcher. Andrew is a first-year student at Shaffer conservatory, talented and friendless, and spending his days practicing drums in hopes of being one of the greats. One day while practicing, he is noticed by Fletcher who keeps an eye on him and eventually invites him to join his band. To say that Terence Fletcher is aggressive is an understatement, but even that doesn’t stop Neiman from pursuing his ambitions. As Terence keeps pushing his pupil beyond his limits, and as Andrew helps him in doing so, the latter sacrifices more and more in hopes of greatness, and that sets the main question of the entire film, is there a limit?

Humphrey Bogart says in In A Lonely Place (1950), “There is no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality”, and Whiplash debates just that. As a lot of films start, Whiplash was in the beginning a feeling, and then it was a question of capturing it. Damien Chazelle says that Terence Fletcher is inspired by one of his instructors when he was a drummer himself, in addition to some of the great jazz conductors infamous for their “unconventional” methods such as Buddy Rich or Jo Jones. The film, aside from being a narrative masterpiece, is a technical feat. J. K. Simmons managed to portray the terror and dread his character represents so well that the audience is as intimidated and unsettled as his students, and Miles Teller’s portrayal of dedication, fright and frustration puts us in the shoes of an apprentice of this fiend, and they both credit Chazelle’s script for that, as it was as complete as it can be. What is most impressive however is the fact that this entire film was shot in 19 days, with the director even being injured during the third week.

Stanley Kubrick once said, “A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings”, and I believe that that is a perfect description of Whiplash. The first scene is like a quiet intro that is suddenly perturbed by Fletcher’s entrance, and it’s just an upbeat organized chaos from there on. Even when he is not on screen, we feel his presence, as much of his character is portrayed through other people’s fear of him, and the ending of the film is a literal solo that answers some of the film’s basic questions, and leaves the major ones open for interpretation. There are many aspects to judge a film’s success: acting, Simmons and Teller’s acting is damn near perfect, cinematography, Whiplash is a ride of beautiful shot after another coupled with an amazing score in perfect synchrony, and impression on the audience, Whiplash presents the viewer with two characters, similar in some ways and different in more, and we can identify with either or both of them, just like we opinionize about most issues.

Whiplash may capture what being a musician is for some people, and it may conflict with other people’s perception of it. It’s true that it’s on the extreme side and often flirts with violence and sadism in a manner that may repel most people from music, but the truth remains that it will make you feel something, and that’s what a good film does.


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