Damien Chazelle, the 29 year old writer and director, has suddenly become this year’s award season sensation. Chazelle’s second-feature film “Whiplash” (2014) has earned a Golden Globe, five Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and numerous other jury awards. The movie belongs to drama genre, but the electrifying script and performances gives us a feeling of watching a blistering action/thriller. “Whiplash” tracks the experiences of a young wanna-be Jazz legend, who is broken-in as well as broken-down by a furious, tyrannical teacher. Chazelle has written the script based on his own experiences with an abusive mentor during his brief stint as high-school drummer.
The film has a simple storyline and plot structure, but provocatively twists the way the relationship between student and mentor is usually portrayed in Hollywood movies. It also questions how a genius is born and limitations of control that influences the mastery. Movies like “Goodwill Hunting”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Finding Forrester” etc, had mentors who positively influenced their pupils to achieve greatness. But, what would happen if that mentor is a despot, who is ready to wreak all kinds of havoc until he pries out the genius out of his talented pupil. “Whiplash” is also one of the rare films in the teacher/student genre that’s truly contemplative. It genuinely raises many questions about the nature of teaching and the sacrifices made by legends without zeroing in on a simple answer.
The movie starts at one end of a hallway, and on the other end we see our protagonist Andrew Neyman (Milles Teller) fiercely drumming. The camera moves slowly and at the doorway, the camera turns around reveal Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). This guy is intrigued to see what Andrew’s got. He asks to play the double-swing. Andrew attempts and the camera spins around, showing us a slamming door. That opening sequence mildly showcases the Andrew’s desperation and Fletcher’s abusive nature, a theme which runs throughout the movie. Andrew is a talented Jazz drummer who wants to become a legend like Buddy Rich. He is freshman at an elite, prestigious music school called ‘Shaffer Conservatory’. Andrew’s dreams are little skeptically supported by his middle-class father (Paul Reiser).
Terrence Fletcher, a senior-level instructor at the school, invites Andrew to sit in as ‘alternate’ with his prestigious core band. He asks Andrew report at 6 AM, although the rehearsal starts up at 9 AM. In the class, Fletcher plays sleazy mind-games and is impossible to please. During the interval, Fletcher softly asks about Andrew’s background. Andrew says that his mother has left him when he was a little boy. Later, Fletcher gives him a chance at the drums, and immediately starts praising him.
But, gradually the smile vanishes from the face of Fletcher, and stops Andrew at every turn, repeatedly saying “Not my Tempo”. Andrew desperately tries to pick up the tempo, but out of nowhere, a chair is hurled, and then comes the barrage of verbal abuse from Fletcher (“You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn't Eugene O'Neill and who's now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl!”). He shows enough flashes of humanity to draw in his subject, and suddenly uses profane electricity to jolt the dazed student to see whether he snaps or gives his best. From then on, Andrew become more determined to succeed and forms a complex, symbiotic relationship with Fletcher.
“Whiplash” basically has the structure of a sports film genre. Like a boxing movie, there‘s a young prodigy, hot-headed mentor, a big game etc. Director Chazelle takes this trajectory and adds enough subjectivity to give us that ambiguous feeling. As the movie ends with a furious, complex drum solo, we don’t see applauds, praises or resolving statement that states “Playing music should be fun” or “Greatness could be achieved only at great cost”. Many might feel that this movie makes an unusual or objectionable statement in the end. But, Chazelle doesn’t give us any conclusions as he himself has said in an interview that “I guess it’s still something I’m not sure about” (Q: Do you think the talented should be pushed to the edge in the pursuit of excellence).
The movie’s ambiguity could be best experienced if it’s seen from the characters’ subjective point of view. According to Fletcher, fear is the biggest motivator. So, he uses it at every turn bringing in doubts on the talented. Fletcher has single conversation with Andrew grasping in the boy’s back-story and uses it against him to raise his inherent fear. He says Andrew’s drumming talents is similar to his father’s writing talent or that he deserves his mother’s rejection. Those basic dreads combined with Andrew’s obsessive nature puts him in the path of achieving greatness. Fletcher’s argument is that to achieve such a stage, you can damage or sacrifice anything. He is happy to crush thousands of students’ musical dreams, if he could just find one legend (or one Charlie Parker). In the end, Chazelle neither condones nor condemns Fletcher’s conduct. We don’t know whether Fletcher final insult to Andrew is a plan to bring out his talents or just pure revenge. It could be both. The director also observes in the climax that Andrew, by not giving into Fletcher’s abuse, kind of gets drawn into the teacher’s web. There’s a tight close-up shot in this scene, where both the characters laugh, but we are once again left ambiguous on whether it’s a happy or sad ending.
Women in such male-dominated films are either shown as supportive figures or like pitfalls. Chazelle break the romantic sub-plot at very earlier stage, and uses it to show how Andrew’s state of mind is affected by Fletcher’s influence. The shy Andrew approaches a pretty girl (Melissa Benoist) and goes on one or two dates with her. After experiencing the abuses, Andrew gives this weird speech to the girl, where he talks as if he knows everything about her – her hopes, dreams, and ambitions. He cites that he is breaking up because she’s going to pin him down with this relationship. It’s basically Fletcher talking through Andrew’s mouth. It’s a little scene that powerfully depicts the cyclic nature of abuse.
The energetic jazz rhythms and exuberant drum solos are as engrossing and tense as the film’s thought-provoking ideas. The unbridled energy in the music itself dictates the shooting and editing styles. The questions raised by this film wouldn’t have reached our eyes & ears if not for the great performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. As Fletcher, Simmons is cloaked in black, tight T-shirts, and the camera itself focuses on him as a daunting guy who’s hailed from the Scorsese universe. His characterization would easily draw comparisons with R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, but I felt Fletcher is the most sinister one. Hartman was only putting on a face to turn those guys into a killing machine. Of course, he is sending them to die. But, take Fletcher, who puts on a deceitful, humanistic face to get details to wreak more havoc, psychologically. He uses the demise of his former, prized student to create the myth of a prodigious talent taken too soon, but neglects his part in that young man’s untimely death. Simmons also enacts all these psychological violence with an elegance and swagger that’s just more terrifying. Teller is best known for his smart-ass roles in “That Awkward Movement”, “21 & over”, “Footloose”, but with this film he is pushed to showcase all his acting capabilities and he is wholly convincing too.
“Whiplash” (107 minutes) deconstructs the inspirational teacher genre, offering no easy resolutions. You don’t have be Jazz fan to view this movie, since you can take the film’s fundamental thesis and use it to address any art form or sports that involves immense hard-work and sacrifice.