Jazz music is not something we see regularly in mainstream pop culture anymore, with genres such as pop and rock taking the foreground more regularly now. Originating in the early 20th century, jazz is a genre that demonstrates pure musical talent with large ensembles of extremely gifted musicians – and this is exactly what we are given with Damien Chazelle’s drama, Whiplash. This wonderfully original story follows a young jazz drummer who gets picked up to play in a very successful big band, mentored by a ruthless instructor. His passion, however, slowly descends into an obsession as he gets closer and closer to his dream.
We are first introduced to protagonist, Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), during a private rehearsal as the screen fades from black, listening to him warming up. The long shot, focusing on only him and his drum kit is already underlining the isolation he has put himself through to achieve his dream of being the “greatest musician of the 20th century” – a phrase he uses to defend his musical education in front of his rather cynical family members. During his practice, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the notoriously strict instructor of the largest jazz studio in the state listens in, and (after greatly intimidating Andrew) drafts the aspiring drummer into his band.
As Andrew’s training regime grows more and more obsessive, Miles Teller’s extraordinary talent in both acting and musicianship truly come into play. We see Andrew in every scene, similar to Aronofsky’s Black Swan, both films concerning obsessive, passionate protagonists. Teller’s drumming makes up 40% of the actual soundtrack, and he also played along to versions of the songs he had pre-recorded himself during scenes.
J. K. Simmons is exceptional as the ruthless tutor, with his harsh methods demonstrated early on as he savagely mocks and fires a trumpet player for not being aware of the correct tuning during a rehearsal. His cold-blooded character is played with a great amount of depth, however, giving Fletcher a kind of unspoken back-story, as the audience question his anger and methods of teaching.
The music in Whiplash is very original, compared to films that have been released in the last few years. It constructed entirely of jazz and is written by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, except for various big band classics such as the titular song ‘Whiplash’ by Hank Levy. There is an incredible recurring motif throughout the score, written by Hurwitz, which culminates with a very tender piano performance from Fletcher, really exposing his vulnerability.
Damien Chazelle’s writing constantly takes the unexpected route, with a number of unexpected turns, and the tension is built up perfectly to compliment the explosive final scene. The narrative remains compelling throughout. Although the cinematography is nothing out of the ordinary (despite some beautiful establishing shots of the protagonist and various thrilling fast-paced scenes), this is not the intention of the film – it is more focused on the story and the talent of the protagonists.
Whiplash is easily one of the best films released this year with its merits in the acting, writing and enthralling jazz music. It becomes more than a film about a jazz drummer, as the question arises – how far would you go to achieve your dream? Is it worth it? Regardless, this incredible film completely disproves Fletcher’s downbeat exclamation of “no wonder… jazz is dying”.
Drama, Music | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment | 1st June 2015 (UK) | 15 | Dir: Damien Chazelle | Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell | Buy: [DVD]