Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Produced by: Jason Blum
Screenplay by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller
Music by: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography by: Sharone Meir
Editing by: Tom Cross
Right Of Way Films
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Release date(s): January 16, 2014 (Sundance Film Festival, premiere)
May 20, 2014 (Cannes Film Festival, Directors' Fortnight)
October 10, 2014 (United States, limited)
January 16, 2015 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 106 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $3.3 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $10, 484, 092
Today's film up for review is Whiplash, an American indie which played at Sundance last year, but has since become an Oscar prospect, bagging five nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for J.K. Simmons). It was written and directed by Damien Chazalle, who was just twenty-eight when he made the picture, and is based on his own experiences as a jazz drummer and born out of frustration having to work as a writer for hire after his debut feature Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench. Starring Miles Teller in the lead role of Andrew Neiman, a student jazz drummer at New York's Schaffer Conservatory, it follows his pursuit of attempting to achieve greatness, all the while seeking to earn the respect of his disciplinarian teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Got it? Good!
Starting off with the good, I have to address the two primary performances. I say primary because the two performances, though the main players in this whole show, are on different levels; one's a lead, the other's supporting. So, for all the attention that is being lavished on Simmons, I have to say that I was as impressed with Miles Teller stepping up his game. What a far cry to go from Project X to Whiplash within two years; the young man puts his whole heart and soul into this part. Not only is it a great physical performance, as he spends a lot of the movie covered in sweat and in a high-functioning state behind a drum-kit, emotionally he injects such grace and humanity into Andrew. We empathise and root for him to be the best he can be, and with the subtle inflections he gives to the character, it's at times rather moving to see his reactions towards the sacrifices he makes in his life to achieve his goals. Acting wise, of course, the big talking point is J.K. Simmons, and he's more than deserving of the attention being lavished upon, as Terence Fletcher is one mighty screen creation. My award for Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role is named R. Lee Ermey, most famous for his role as Sergeant Hartmann in Full Metal Jacket, and there's that same kind of vibe to this part. Simmons has always been a reliable and entertaining supporting player, but given a character like Fletcher to eat up, he hits it out of the part. The harsh eloquence with which he spews the dialogue and channels up his physical and emotional tempo, as it were, from irritating to menacing to downright terrifying is extraordinary. Regardless of what kind of scene is being played out, when Simmons' Fletcher is involved, there is always an undercurrent of tension, that this guy could snap at any moment and burn you right down to your core. Teller and Simmons both bring out the best in each other, and make for 2014's best onscreen tete-a-tete. Another performance which was good but doesn't stand out in the same way as Teller or Simmons is that of Melissa Benoist. Giving her character of Nicole real texture, she helps hammer home the extent of just how mad and obsessed Andrew is with his ambition. The film is also home to some excellent editing from Tom Cross. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Cross cites The Wild Bunch, The French Connection and Raging Bull as spiritual ancestors to his work here, and it has be said the way in which he edits the drumming sequences, cutting like crazed maniac with a jackknife in an absolute barrage which elevates the level of suspense in the atmosphere. Also, importantly, it's not just the expert use of montage, but how he is able match the pacing of the picture appropriately in some of the film's more relaxed scenes. Of course, his editing wouldn't mean much if there wasn't the images to go with it, and Sharone Meir, while not excelling quite like Cross, is more than able to shoot a good film. Sometimes, the movie feels like an American indie drama, but then at others, with the shots of bloodied hands, sweat, eyes, it's more like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, everything designed to be a buildup to a moment in history. Through Meir's photography, which is also crisply lit, we are able to get this. Also, you'd like to think that with music being the primary driving force in the film that Whiplash would have good sound: it doesn't just have good sound, it has great sound. Walking the tightrope, it's a believable depiction of the meticulous perfectionism involved with a jazz sound, but most importantly the sound matches the emotional tempo of where the characters are at a given stage in the film (I'm trying my hardest not to say tempo, but believe me, in this case, it's very hard. It's the perfect word but it's like a poxy jinx waiting to pop out at me). Just about everything, from the sound design to the mixing/editing to the original score by Justin Hurwitz is appropriately pitched towards what's happening in the drama. The final thing I want to comment on is Damien Chazelle and his work here as both writer and director. Firstly, his screenplay is perhaps the best of 2014. I mentioned at the outset of this review of it being born of frustration, and it reminds me of how Sylvester Stallone used to talk of writing Rocky, how he'd reached a stage in his life feeling that he needed to do something important, and there's something of that same feeling here. Importantly though, he doesn't get overwhelmed by any sense of self-serving duty, and instead tells a deeply powerful human drama. His scenarios and dialogue hit close to home in terms of how truthful they feel. Take little details like Andrew looking at Nicole's number on his phone and deciding not to ring her: who hasn't felt emotionally stifled in that way before, regardless of how strongly you feel about someone? My reference to Rocky is important, because the underlying content that this suggests is that it begs us to question as to whether or not it takes a certain level of madness, emotional tyranny, in order for someone to become the best version of themselves that they can be: to what extent do you have to make sacrifices in your life to see that your ambitions come to fruition? As far as directing goes, Whiplash marks the revelation of a new, distinctive voice in American cinema. Chazelle, only twenty-eight when he shot this film, takes the bull by the horns, maintaining supreme control and delivering a work of prodigious mastery akin to the heights of the young Paul Thomas Anderson, who burst onto the scene in his mid-twenties with Boogie Nights. This is a film that really could have got bogged down in many regards, be it making a gimmick of the Terence Fletcher character, focusing too much on the drumming side of things et al, but Chazelle keeps things measured and plays it just right. Whiplash is a remarkable triumph of passionate filmmaking.
Now, I adored Whiplash, in case you can't tell. That said, I always have to look at things with a relative level of measure, and line up my only criticism, however minor. Whiplash is a highly intense human drama that unfold with the intricacies of a thriller and has a big-fight feel. As such, combining this level of intensity with jazz, a central subject of the film and yet at times so divisive among music listeners, that some may be put off the film as a general default. Speaking as someone whose mother has the most acquired tastes I've ever known from anyone who has uttered an opinion on a movie, I can assure that there are those kinds of people out there.
That being said, while some may be turned off by the intensity combined with the central subject of jazz, they should be able to look past that and see that jazz as a metaphor in the overarching power of the whole work. Whiplash is fronted by a breakout central performance from Miles Teller, whose Andrew Neiman alongside the mighty J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher makes for the best onscreen tete-a-tete of 2014, technically it's both astute and appropriate to the film, the jackknife editing of Tom Cross somehow able to keep up with the pace of the sound, which itself as a whole (original score, sound design/editing/mixing) is meticulously constructed to the nth degree. Finally, it heralds a new and distinctive cinematic voice in writer-director Damien Chazelle, who, in baring himself completely with this one, has delivered a work of such prodigious talent to match Paul Thomas Anderson's arrival in the the 1990s. Whiplash is one of the best films of 2014 and however you feel about jazz, it'd be a disservice to yourself to miss this one.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool