Classic American films: Whiplash – Damien Chazelle’s hard-hitting 2014 drama never drags
- Chazelle’s film about jazz drumming starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons might be niche subject matter but the treatment is transfixing
- A razor-sharp script complements excellent central performances
In this regular feature series on some of the most talked-about films, we examine the legacy of classics, re-evaluate modern blockbusters, and revisit some of the most memorable lines in film. We continue this week with Whiplash, the breakout hit of La La Land and First Man director Damien Chazelle.
It may be hard to believe, but back in 2014, writer-director Damien Chazelle exploded onto the scene with a film about jazz drumming. Even harder to believe, people actually went to see it because, though the subject matter may be niche, the treatment is transfixing.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first-year jazz drumming student at New York’s (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory. In truth, he’s a bit of a jerk, but he’s got the talent, and the tunnel vision, to make it into the prestigious studio band run by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Trouble is, Fletcher is so exacting and abusive, you genuinely fear for Neiman’s well-being.
Playing until your fingers bleed is one thing – just ask Bryan Adams – but Fletcher’s demands are sadistic bordering on satanic. In the famous scene where Fletcher asks repeatedly if Neiman is “rushing or dragging”, he slaps his face, throws furniture at him and shouts, “If you deliberately sabotage my band I will f**k you like a pig!” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Miss Jean Brodie making the same threat.
To begin with, Whiplash (the title has a clever double meaning) seems to be one of those films about inspirational teachers who push their students to the limits to achieve their full potential. But it’s much more than that. Fletcher might be what Neiman needs to progress to the next level, or he might be a psychopath, and it’s not clear whether our hero will last long enough to find out.
Unlike the usual Hollywood rags-to-riches tale, this isn’t about “being the best”, but the toxicity of genius. In pursuing his ambition of becoming the next Buddy Rich, Neiman alienates his family, loses his girlfriend, and risks his education, while Fletcher, we hear, bullies one poor boy to suicide. When Neiman plays live with the studio band we barely see the audience, because it’s not about entertaining people, but proving himself to himself. Whoever said jazz was musical masturbation wasn’t far off the mark.
Besides a razor-sharp script and excellent central performances, Chazelle’s direction is remarkably assured. Watching the band warming up becomes a symphony of little rituals and superstitions, and the lighting adds expressive layers of meaning. When we first meet Nieman practising alone, he’s bathed in the sickly yellow of obsession. The rehearsal rooms, meanwhile, are swathed in a hellish, envious orange.
Whiplash balances on a knife edge for the most part because the characters are so unpleasant that following them is a question of fascination rather than identification. Like a drum solo, the moment they lose our attention, it’s over. To Chazelle’s credit, that never happens, and the result is a virtuoso film about virtuosity.
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook