Sweat, blood, and tears: the angst of musical perfection could not be clearer in Damien Chazelle’s Sundance stealer ‘Whiplash.’ Taking home an Audience and Grand Jury Prize in Utah, its programming at the 52nd New York Film Festival now brings the New York City based music drama back to the stature of one Lincoln Center.
Anxiety is not a typical first thought when it comes to jazz, more the smooth feel-good vibes we usually roll with. But when it comes to a performance education on the most competitive level it doesn’t matter what type of music it is; personal pressure and the eager fight for excellence, maybe at a high cost, become stinging obsessions in ‘Whiplash.’ Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is newly enrolled at the best music conservatory in the country and surprises even himself when jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) takes an interest in his practice, landing him an alternate drum seat in a coveted jazz orchestra. But what starts as a proud high for Andrew, alternate turned core member and youngest member of the ensemble, soon shifts into a battle to please the chair-hurling low-blowing Fletcher who wants to redefine the word “potential” with as many slaps and verbal assaults and as it takes.
Andrew doesn’t feel quite understood, not by his high school teaching father (Paul Reiser I) who says he always has other options, not by his football-star cousins, not by Nicole (Melissa Benoist) whom he breaks up with after barely dating to focus on drumming (though that side-story lacks a bit of context), and not even by fellow musicians as the competitive and jealous spirit grows. Andrew is willing to risk his sanity to be “one of the greats.” Fletcher is a die-hard. He knows he owns the room and he uses it to scare his troop into success. Making three drummers play for a part while the other members wait, the drum set smeared with blood from dripping blisters, is a length Fletcher will go. But the two attitudes grow at odds as Andrew can tolerate less and less the stake Fletcher puts on every note, ever sheet of music, ever minute late to a show; each lead works in a constant build to get the upper hand and prove their abilities are superior. Andrew asks Fletcher before one of the best performance scenes on film, “Is there a line?” Come the end of the film, that line shifts many times as the characters push and pull around that boundary.
Teller and Simmons work the angles of their characters so well. Since, as human beings, Andrew can’t be ripping at the drums or Fletcher screaming at his jazz band constantly, there is a binary to them both. Andrew is an introvert and there to learn to be the best. His lack of friends opens for sympathy and his dating life at school is short-lived. But the takeover of music can be seen in every intense drum-face grimace, sweat bead, and harshly honest comment to Fletcher and fellow drummers. And Fletcher only once adds a truly redeeming quality in recognizing a past student’s beautiful skill, but no sooner resorts back to wounding criticism of the highest level. The price of sanity for jazz? Each accepts suffering for the sake of perfection – to a point.
Chazelle’s use of intimate lighting and close-up highlights of the performers’ instruments and exhaustion hones the viewer into the musicians’ sound and movement so closely it’s near tangible. The horn of a trumpet blasts, the drumstick hits a cymbal that makes sweat drops leap off the surface, spit is blown through the mouth piece that lands on the wooden floor, Andrew’s hand submerges in an ice pitcher after practicing to an unhealthy brink, blood dispersing through the water like Kool-Aid: ‘Whiplash’ is a vivid grasp at not just the anxious feel of a drummer and the band, but also the look of it.
As these characters grow less forgiving and more engulfed by destructive instincts, Andrew’s biting rage over risking musical failure and Fletcher’s threatened authority swells. Still, the plot is strong and not entirely predictable. There is not a sense of calm to this film, but instead it is an altogether nail-biting must-see piece of cinema, a grueling tour de force that is musically mental.