Read two critical perspectives on Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014) by Ryan Lattanzio and Logan Kroeber. Whiplash opens in San Francisco on Friday, October 17 and throughout the Bay Area on Friday, October 24.
WHIPLASH: A Tête-à-tête with Teeth
by Ryan Lattanzio
What’s left to say about the terrific, electrifying and exuberantly alive Whiplash? The film has been lapped in gushes of praises up and down the festival circuit for Damien Chazelle’s virtuosic direction and the blistering performances of leads Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
Whiplash is the rare example of a film well worth the hype and, even rarer, a true gem out of Sundance that will far outlive whatever films surpass it at the Academy Awards (where Whiplash will indeed be rewarded).
Beneath the buzzy, controlled chaos of this tightly styled tête-à-tête, in which Teller and Simmons play an eager jazz drummer and his domineering instructor respectively, boils an elemental tale of ambition governed by forces both filial and more than a bit masochistic. Andrew (Teller) is gifted. But “gifted,” in the high-stress environment of a New York City music academy, doesn’t cut it.
But Andrew, who lives a lonely 19-year-old New York life, doesn’t have anyone to push him or praise him or be his cheerleader. His mild-mannered, mostly hands-off single dad (played sweetly by Paul Reiser) offers him little in the way of tough love or discipline. He’s the kind of parent that tells you to “follow your dreams” and then waits in the wings while you do.
Andrew does find a father figure in Fletcher (Simmons), a cruel bully of a teacher who uses scare tactics to make a humiliated meal out of Andrew. By normal educational standards, this man has no business in a school. He pummels his students with ego-busting insults, howling obscenities in their faces, throwing chairs across the room (because that’s what lit a fire under Charlie Parker’s ass, apparently) and publicly humiliating his victims. I mean students.
It’s a wonder these kids don’t wet themselves on a daily basis. But Andrew endures all this sadism, madly, blindly determined to be One of the Greats. In an early scene he squanders a potential romantic relationship knowing what it might cost him—a cliché the film is (phew!) quick to get out of the way. A looming regional competition ratchets up the tension for everybody. Fletcher eventually puts Andrew in the coveted first chair, affirming the you-can’t-believe-your-eyes crazy, compulsively watchable folie-à-deux that’s about to unfold.
You’re on pins-and-needles the whole film waiting for Andrew to grab Fletcher by the Achilles heel. But Fletcher’s weakness, it’s revealed, is a tendency to invest too much in students that turn up disappointing. Reeling from the suspicious death of an old student, he’s far more bruised and battered than his macho, drill-sergeant, muscle-daddy getup implies. So it is with pride and gratitude, mixed with spit and venom and rage, that in the film’s spectacularly staged final sequence Andrew finally delivers for Fletcher who is, in that moment, a father.
Daddy issues aside, on a formal level, Whiplash is a masterful display of style interlocked with substance. In the hands of cinematographer Sharone Meir, the camera wheels and whirls while the tensile editing by Tom Cross provides jazzy, percussive gusto.
Teller and Simmons deliver two outstanding performances that absolutely depend on each other. Teller, 27, carries the verisimilitude of this demanding role in his face, where he has real-life scars acquired in a 2007 accident uncannily similar to one that happens, abruptly and violently, in Whiplash . As for J.K. Simmons, well, we know what this longtime character actor is capable of. This is his supreme achievement.
But the real star is Chazelle, who does not shy away from the torture aspects of Andrew’s late nights of rote practice: raw-knuckled close-ups of blood and sweat and tears are as sickening and gruesome as the most lurid body horror flourishes of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan . The beating of drums, the beating drummer and the browbeating teacher all collide in perfectly satisfying harmony.
Whiplash is one of the year’s great films and if William Friedkin thinks so, then it must be true.
Ryan Lattanzio has written film reviews for myriad publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.
by Logan Kroeber
The best thing about Whiplash is that it takes a specialized subject and makes it enjoyable for a wide audience without dumbing it down. Director Damien Chazelle achieves the heightened intensity of a short within a feature format. He and his cast turn a basic premise—playing the drums—into a thrilling story.
Whiplash ‘s immediate appeal stems from the power relationships in a teacher-student dynamic. The band leader Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is immediately established as a dictator, albeit one with a sense of a humor. He has the best band in school and everyone wants to be in it. Chazelle has said that he wanted Whiplash to be like a mob movie, and you feel all these aspiring players would do anything to get under Fletcher’s wing. There’s an undercurrent of violence, because he’s throwing chairs and constantly berating people and using race and sexuality in his taunts. It’s intense without becoming ponderous.
There’s only one way out for Andrew (Miles Teller), and that’s to succeed. Failure is not an option, and whenever it begins creeping in, he freaks out. Fletcher is constantly rotating drummers in the band to see who can perform a part best, and it’s incredibly emotionally grueling to imagine that situation.
Whiplash puts you in the driver’s seat. Anyone in the audience can imagine that they are behind the drum kit. Usually when I see drumming in movies I get caught up on technical stuff, such as the drummer not being in sync with the audio track. It happens a lot in music videos—an editor will have the drummer hitting a crash cymbal because it looks dramatic, when really the drummer is hitting a snare roll.
Chazelle and his cast attack the challenge of showing and expressing musicianship. Whiplash isn’t perfect, but it maintains a consistent painstaking level of realism, with no red herrings. When Andrew is really smashing on the ride cymbal, I can tell it’s not exactly what I’m hearing, but he’s playing the right part of the kit. Everyone looks like they’ve practiced their instrument, and Simmons is effective in a scene where Fletcher is playing piano in a jazz club.
Chazelle places a lot of emphasis on the kit itself, with intimate closeups that exploit the nooks and crannies (often from below), and action shots that show a drum head vibrating or a cymbal shaking. Oftentimes, it’s within extreme moments of practice or trying to show off on stage. There’ll be little droplets of sweat, or of blood. There’s just enough artifice—you can see that the droplets are a little too big—without going over the top and becoming otherworldly or ridiculous. There’s also some juicy trombone spray, another detail that makes you feel like you are right there with the band.
The scenes in which Andrew is practicing are the most drummer-centric. They’re very to-the-max in terms of splitting knuckles and spilling blood and looking ugly. Every drummer has had that moment where they are trying to find their limit.
It doesn’t seem like Andrew enjoys music very much. It’s more like worshiping a god. He has a lot of drive, but not a lot of passion. He’s not that likable a character. The one time you see him interacting with people his age, he’s a total crank or curmudgeon. (It’s a funny scene.) No one else in the band likes him, and at the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure if I did. He’s not an antihero. Whether this is due to lazy character development or purposeful neutrality, it doesn’t interfere with the story, which is told well without meddlesome aspects.
Instead of presenting a tale in which relationships fall away, Chazelle focuses on obsession and the American desire for perfection at any cost. To see Andrew have some hold on his life and lose it on the path to perfection might have been more effective, though it would also be more traditional. Instead, Andrew blocks out potential relationships. On his first and only date with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), there’s a real moment of emotion and awkwardness. The actors have some chemistry, and I’d have loved to have seen more. This could be a missed opportunity, or just a testament to Teller and Benoist, who inject something into a scene that otherwise wouldn’t have much to it.
Whiplash is incredibly masculine. (It’s also very white: Andrew’s hero is Buddy Rich, not Art Blakey or Elvin Jones.) None of the primary musicians are women. It’s like a crime movie, and the parallels are well-maintained by Chazelle. There are a lot more gangster movies than movies about conservatories, but here, when the goal is success at a Lincoln Center talent scouting operation, it feels going out on a job or taking down a rival gang in a bloodbath.
Fletcher wants to have ownership over a great musician—to push someone to that level. In his own way he’s trying to be altruistic by whipping people into shape to be the best they can be. But he takes it too far. The movie ends on a note that is highly fantastical, though not on a Black Swan level. I took it as a very good sign that Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher also flashed though my mind at one point, even if Whiplash is a little more of a romp in comparison. It has flashes of that intensity and quality.
This review is culled from a post-screening interview with Kroeber.
Logan Kroeber is drummer and percussionist for The Dodos. A two-piece with vocalist-guitarist Meric Long, the group’s recordings include the albums Beware of the Maniacs (2006), Visiter (2008), Time to Die (2009), No Color (2011) and Carrier (2013).
Read a recent interview with Logan Kroeber, “The Dodos’ Logan Kroeber talks songwriting and inspiration with Dylan Shearer” by The Bay Bridged.