Whiplash (2014)

Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle

In a year where I didn’t make it to the cinema nearly as often as I would have enjoyed, I wonder what gems I may have missed throughout the year, films that perhaps slipped through the cracks or critical or popular acclaim that I would appreciate and find a place in my heart to fall in love with, films that I could have done the legwork to find out more about and seek them out. One of my resolutions this year is to do better at seeing what I want to see, and seeking out more hidden gems. While this pursuit is still in its first month, I have already found redemption for the errors of my way from last year. I had a desire to see Whiplashwhen it originally came out, but by the time I sought it out, it had already come and gone. Thankfully awards season has brought it back to the forefront, and I was able to enjoy it in the theater.

Having a certain level of appreciation for jazz, but by no means being knowledgeable or passionate about the art form, I quickly became interested in Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, seeking to become one of the great jazz drummers. Andrew keeps mostly to himself, becoming engrossed in his art and his craft, taking pride to the point of causing a disruption at the family dinner table when he felt his professional choice was being slighted. Handpicked by Dr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conservatory’s foremost instructor and conductor of the schools studio band, Andrew begins to push himself, many times at the provocation of Fletcher, to be perfect, but Fletcher’s provocation also flirts with abusive and irresponsible behavior, pushing Andrew to the brink of both stardom and desolation.

Nothing this year, or even in recent years, has felt this immediate. Damien Chazelle’s film packs a surprisingly powerful punch which lands heavily on the audience from the opening scene and never lets up. For a film about the progression of a jazz drummer, I never would have expected a film quite like this and that’s what adds to its impact. There are many factors that aid the effect Chazelle pulls off, starting with the acting by the leads Teller and Simmons. Simmons, of course, is up for a slew of awards, some of which he has already won, and with good reason. He embodies the slightly psychotic, perfectionist instructor, pushing his students to be better than they thought they could ever be, better than anyone else ever told them they were. Teller continues to impress each time I see him in a new role and in Whiplash he may be better than I’ve ever seen him; a performance right up there with The Spectacular Now.

Where Chazelle perhaps reaches is in his plotting, featuring many instances of fanatical, unbelievable events, but to his credit, Chazelle isn’t going for realism in Whiplash. His plotting matches perfectly with the obsession and passion of its two main characters, and for that reason the orchestrated melodramatic events only play into the films strengths, and don’t deter them. The film is built on rhythm, inside and out, taking the concept of percussive art literally by matching the editing to a particular syncopation of emotion to get the most out of the tense scenes between Simmons and Teller. Adding to this percussive effect is the lack of air in the film. Feeling like it never lets up from the first scene and especially to the last, Whiplash demonstrates a remarkable utilization of time.

What Chazelle and company accomplish with Whiplash is the type of film that sticks in your mind, or least it did mine. Thinking about what made my favorite films this year my favorites, Whiplash creates a new category. Its energy and music pairs beautifully, a credit to the spot on direction from Chazelle. Endlessly impressed with the care taken to craft this film in such a particular way, I will certainly keep Damien Chazelle in the back of my mind for the future.  Whiplash is not a sprawling epic, it’s not technologically advanced, it’s not a heartwarming story, but it is a jolt of energy, an immediate, impactful personification of emboldened and unrelenting passion.

**** – Masterpiece


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