By Alan Mattli
An interesting schism can be observed separating the reviewers of 30-year-old Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature, which raises essential questions about what is considered “good” cinema. Pitted against the majority of critics and industry members, who helped Whiplash garner five Academy Award nominations stand self-described connoisseurs of jazz and jazz school alumni, who decry the film’s distinctive lack of realism, its perceived misrepresentation of jazz school life, protocol, and conduct.
Yes, Whiplash is a primarily artificial construct that at times sacrifices its inner logic in order to get its parabolic point across. But it does so admirably and valiantly, with a level of accomplishment that suggests a writer-director far beyond Chazelle’s years and track record (one feature, one short, assorted writing credits including The Last Exorcism Part II). Artistic licence is a sensible concept to apply to cinema, by its very definition a medium of metonymy and artifice – especially when the work under consideration is one of such impeccable adroitness.
So while the clash of aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and tyrannical teacher and conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) might not reflect any real-world situations, it does stand tall as a minutely executed, jazzily effortless chamber play that, similar to Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, asks whether greatness and glory really warrant the tribulations that go into achieving them. Generously interspersed with rousing scenes of big band music – marvellous testaments to the often underappreciated crafts of editing, sound mixing, sound editing, and lighting –, Whiplash immersively chronicles Andrew’s path from a shy, slightly sullen supporting drummer in a low-tier band at the prestigious New York Shaffer Conservatory to core drummer in Shaffer’s high-end competitive band, headed by Fletcher.
Even though the film’s main focus in terms of character development is on Andrew, whose nervous-yet-ruthless ambition constantly just grazes the pathological, it is Fletcher who proves to be the most intriguing figure of the film’s limited cast of characters, which also includes Paul Reiser as Andrew’s anxious father and Melissa Benoist as Andrew’s love interest who falls by the wayside as he decides to dedicate his life to drumming. In many ways, Fletcher epitomises the film’s central thematic conflict; that the path to true greatness is strewn with acts bordering on the antisocial, that the pursuit of exceptionalism comes at the cost of a sort of dehumanisation and social estrangement. (Whether or not this is actually the case, particularly in jazz where natural disposition plays a significant role, can of course be debated.)
Fletcher is a towering, fearsome presence, a musical equivalent to Full Metal Jacket‘s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman with the Kubrickian satire taken down a peg or two – throwing chairs at mistimed players, verbally and physically abusing students he perceives as weak, dealing out slurs and insults in the name of artistic perfection. But he is also a shockingly engaging, troublingly human character whose motivations do become crystal clear as the film progresses, who is evidently not being mean for meanness’ sake, who is by no means a stranger to feelings of sadness, remorse, and self-doubt, and who is repeatedly shown to be more or less fully aware of what influence he has on his intimidated protégés. Part of this three-dimensionality comes from Chazelle’s slim, on-point screenplay, but there is absolutely no denying that it is J. K. Simmons’ thunderous portrayal that ultimately makes Fletcher come to life. Simmons, who has made a career of playing – sometimes only with his voice – fundamentally good-natured, bemused, fatherly characters (Spider-Man, Hidalgo, The Ladykillers, Juno, Burn After Reading, Up in the Air, True Grit, Young Adult), brilliantly plays on his understated charisma to add a thin but potent layer of unsettling magneticism, if not likeability, to an otherwise purely antagonistic role.
His climactic confrontation with Andrew, an immaculately staged duel of piercing looks amid a frenzy of drumming, may be initiated by a move that is decidedly out of character, but it nonetheless caps off a remarkable effort from a promising new directorial voice in a satisfying and undoubtedly fitting manner. Without ever taking a clear stance on the matter – to its credit –, Whiplash fascinatingly embeds its negotiation between the rewarding charms of everyday existence and the costly price of trying to be a legate of high art in a ceaselessly gripping, admirably minimalistic narrative. It may not be quite true to life, but it makes for outstanding cinema.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.