2014 Academy Awards, 87th Annual Academy Awards, abusive relationships, Austin Stowell, based on a short, Best Adapted Screenplay nominee, Best Film Editing winner, best films of 2014, Best Picture nominee, Best Supporting Actor Winner, C.J. Vana, character dramas, cinema, Damien Chazelle, dedication vs obsession, dramas, drummers, dysfunctional family, egomania, father figures, father-son relationships, favorite films, film reviews, films, J.K. Simmons, jazz musicians, Justin Hurwitz, Melissa Benoist, mentor, Miles Teller, Movies, multiple award nominee, multiple Oscar winner, music school, musical prodigy, Nate Lang, New York City, obsession, Oscars, Paul Reiser, protege, romance, set in New York City, Sharone Meir, teacher-student relationships, Tom Cross, twist ending, Whiplash, writer-director
For musicians, there’s a thin, almost invisible, line separating “dedication” from “obsession.” On one side of the line, adherents remove all unnecessary outside distractions, focusing almost exclusively on their craft. They practice endlessly, never stop learning and live, eat and breathe their music. For dedicated musicians, it’s not necessarily a sacrificial move: when you live for music, what else would you rather be doing? On the other side of the line, it’s a similar story, with one major twist: when you’re obsessed with your craft, you eschew any and everything, zeroing in on your music with a frightening degree of tunnel vision. Turning their back on friends, family, relationships (both romantic and professional), societal niceties and any concept of a well-rounded life, obsessed musicians live for only one thing: their craft. Removing their music from the equation would be as deadly as dropping a goldfish on the floor.
The world is full of amazing, talented, dedicated musicians. The irony, of course, is that the only way to be a legendary musician, the kind of performer that other players idolize, copy and envy, the kind of musician who achieves immortality through their art, is to be obsessed. There are plenty of normal, well-adjusted musicians covering virtually every square inch of the Earth. The geniuses? I’m guessing you’ll only need one hand to do that math.
Damien Chazelle’s vibrant, kinetic and endlessly thrilling Whiplash (2014) takes a good, hard look at the dividing line between “dedication” and “obsession,” at the difference between being “your best” and “THE best.” Our entry-point into this world is Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drum prodigy who idolizes Buddy Rich and wants to be the best damn drummer in the world. As such, he’s currently studying at the prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory: when he’s not in class, he’s behind his kit, pummeling his way through one endless practice session after another. Andrew is a fine, upstanding young man, with a good head on his shoulders and a supportive father (Paul Reiser) who only wants the best for him. At this point, our hero is standing firmly on the “dedicated” side of things.
While practicing one night, Andrew happens to attract the attention of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the Draconian, hot-tempered, much feared “local god” who commands (conducts isn’t quite strong enough) the much-vaunted Shaffer Academy studio band. Getting selected for Fletcher’s group is kind of like an amateur getting invited to spar with Bruce Lee: it’s a huge honor but you’re gonna get your ass kicked. While Fletcher doesn’t give Andrew the nod right away, he does pop into his class the next day, gives everyone an impromptu audition and whisks our young hero from obscurity into the upper echelons.
Once he finally gets a chance to sit in on Fletcher’s class, however, Andrew comes to a massive revelation: his wannabe hero is an abusive, violent, savage, mean-spirited shithead who believes that the only way to achieve greatness is to be battered until you’re broken. For him, the only way to test greatness is with fire…lots and lots of fire. As Andrew and Fletcher slam heads like bighorn sheep, each one attempting to exert their authority over the other, it seems that Fletcher’s tact is working: under his exacting, abusive, obsessive tutelage, Andrew is getting better and better, faster and faster. When it finally comes time for the student to challenge the master, however, Andrew will come to find that not all obsessions are created equal: his obsession to be the best might just get crushed into dust by Fletcher’s obsession with MAKING him the best. Will Andrew scale the heights that he so desperately wants, joining the esteemed company of his hero, Buddy Rich, or will Fletcher break him just like he broke everyone else?
Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Whiplash is a pretty amazing film. Smart, relentless, brutal, simple, streamlined…if Chazelle’s film was a fighter, it would be the silent, pensive and cold-blooded tough guy that doesn’t need to brag: he just wipes up the street with you. In every way, Whiplash is an old soul: the film’s simplicity and style handily recall similarly single-minded dramas from the ’60s and ’70s, so sparse and frill-free as to be a complete breath of fresh air in this increasingly fractured modern era. This is a no bullshit character study which, at the end of the day, is exactly what it needs to be.
As a film, Whiplash is as single-minded and laser-focused as our young protagonist: in fact, the only element of the film that ultimately falls flat is the obligatory romantic angle involving Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the concession-stand worker that he falls for. I understand why the relationship is there: it provides a nice, first-hand illustration of the relationship sacrifices that obsessed musicians make. Thematically, it holds water just fine. On a filmmaking level, however, the side-story actually dilutes some of the film’s power: watching Andrew and Fletcher battle is like watching Godzilla go ten rounds with Ghidora, while the awkward courtship feels like the padding in between the “good stuff.” It also doesn’t help that the scenes between Teller and Benoist are some of the most conventional and static in the film, featuring basic back-and-forth coverage and mundane dialogue.
Quibbles aside, however, Whiplash pretty much knocks everything else out of the park. Teller is fantastic as the young prodigy, able to portray naivety, vulnerability, anger and obsession in equal measures. Whether facing off against Fletcher, his backstabbing peers or his own condescending family, Teller is more than up for the task. While I believe that this is the first film I’ve actually seen him in, I’m willing to wager that I see lots more of him in the future.
There’s a reason why J.K. Simmons took the Best Supporting Actor Oscar over Edward Norton’s fiery performance from Birdman (2014): his performance as Fletcher is one of the most intense, incredible and uncomfortable acting tour de forces that I’ve ever seen. There’s no denying that Simmons is an absolutely essential actor: he’s one of those guys who seems to be in everything, including TV commercials, yet he never wears out his welcome…he’s like Ron Perlman or Bruce Campbell in that you just want more of him, regardless of the production. As an acting job, it’s practically a master-class in the craft: veins popping, spit flying from his hard-set lips, throwing chairs, slapping the shit out of students…if you don’t jump the first time he really lets loose, you might be watching a different movie. Simmons performance is so good that it’s the kind of thing that could easily get lost in hyperbole: it really is one of the best performances in years, no two ways about it.
Aside from the kinetic style and tremendous performances, Whiplash is a marvel of filmmaking technique. The score, sometimes foreboding, sometimes playfully jazzy (in a “Times Square circa 1970” way), is used sparsely but to great effect. There are no leading musical cues, no heart-tugging orchestral swells (I’m glaring at you, The Theory of Everything (2014)) and no hand-holding. As befits a film about jazz musicians, Whiplash is expertly edited on the beat, making the jazz an integral part of both the film’s narrative and its DNA. Editing is often (and rightfully so) an invisible art-form but we all owe Tom Cross a debt of gratitude for his stellar editing job here. There’s a reason why Whiplash won the Best Editing award and the proof is definitely in the pudding.
The film also looks great, with plenty of atmospheric shots and some wonderfully slow, measured pans. There’s a tendency towards extreme close-ups, which really heightens the film’s tension, as well as drawing attention to the film’s incredible performances: Teller and Simmons do so much with their faces (particularly their eyes) that one well-timed close-shot says as much as a scene full of expository dialogue. Again, this is a film that purposefully recalls an older style of filmmaking: the assumption, here, is that we’re all smart enough to follow along…no need to telegraph, over-explain or “connect the dots,” as it were.
You can have a good film with a terrible script but, in my opinion, you can’t really have a great film with a terrible script: good thing for us that Chazelle (who wrote the script) is also the genius behind the screenplay for Eugenio Mira’s extraordinary Grand Piano (2013), one of the smartest, best written films I’ve ever seen. With two fantastic script under his belt (I might even be forced to check out The Last Exorcism 2 (2013), since he penned that, as well), Chazelle is officially a force to be reckoned with.
In every way, Whiplash is a simple story told exceptionally well: in other words, my favorite kind. By cutting out all the unnecessary minutiae that clogs so many similar films, Whiplash hums like a live wire and never releases its grip on the audience. From the brilliantly stylized, simple opening, to the awesome visual of Andrew plunging his bleeding hand into a tub of ice water, all the way to the genuinely surprising twist ending that manages to throw conventionally clichéd “triumphant” final performances right out the window, Whiplash is one delightful surprise after another. As an ode to the impossible dedication and obsession that go hand in hand with creating beautiful music, as well as the universal need to be accepted by those we look up to, Whiplash has few peers.
One of Fletcher’s favorite retorts, snarled in his typically polite, bulldog-with-a-smile way, is “Not my fucking tempo”: no matter how good his students are, they’re never good enough for him…or for themselves, as far as he’s concerned. I’d like to think that, if it could “talk,” Whiplash would have the same withering contempt for most of its peers: not my fucking tempo, indeed. The rest of ’em are welcome to play along but they’ll never be able to keep up.