Pursuing dreams and working hard in order to realise them are probably the most enduring myths of today’s society. From a very young age, we are told about the stories of success and how important it is to “stay true to yourself.” Films are primarily guilty of perpetuating this worldview, which makes a lot of younger people feel inadequate and increasingly frustrated with their lives. American cinema is full of such stories with Hollywood being a grand epitome of that. All of which makes it refreshing when a film comes along to challenge the established assumptions. Or at least has a decency to leave a question mark at the end.
Whiplash is a debut of thirty year old American filmmaker Damien Chazelle. Once an aspiring musician himself, he drew from his personal experiences to create a story about young ambitious jazz drummer Andrew Neiman who gets into the elite jazz band of notorious Terence Fletcher. It would seem that this relationship would lead to a fairly standard “master and apprentice” development. But, thankfully, things are quite as simple in Whiplash. It starts off as a fairly conventional drama in which main protagonist will be challenged through many trails recalling Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Well, it sort of does. But with a twist.
The film is almost entirely powered by the acting duo of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Both of these performance are absolutely stellar. They create a complex relationship that escapes typical genre clichés and makes viewers question their preconception about character motivation. Chazelle cleverly juggles conventions and blurs the line between honest passion and psychopathy. It’s not quite clear who is more dangerous: the abusive teacher who’ll use anything against you or the greedy and increasingly arrogant pupil who is willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of greatness? Simmons is delightful, and occasionally genuinely frightening, in his balancing act between icy cold stillness and overexpression. Teller, on the other hand, creates a fragile but determined individual that is slowly consumed by his own egotistical desires. In all fairness, it might be the more difficult part of the two.
As can be expected, music is a constant element and several standards (including Whiplash itself) set a rhythm and pulse for ensuing drama. And while jazz fills its every corner, one can’t help but wonder that Chazelle’s film has almost nothing to do with music as such and is about something else entirely. Andrew’s struggle is as much about his career as it is about his soul. Indeed, this obsession with perfection brings back to mind the main character of Michael Mann’s Doctor Faustus and similar ethical questions about artistic genius. But, despite obvious similarities, the resolution to Neiman’s story is even less clear. Perhaps a wise choice.
For a small drama, mostly taking places in unglamorous rooms, the film is extremely well staged and shot. Chazelle manages to frame each mundane location in a way that makes his work look polished and stylish. Not an easy task. The chamber-like musical performance scenes are elevated into true showpieces, with the final 10-minute musical sequence being a particular highlight. Very few words are spoken but tension is up in the air. Fantastic piece of cinema. Additionally, pacing is impeccable: narrative moves at the brisk pace of big band jazz music and it doesn’t really waste time, ever. Two main characters meet pretty much in the very first scene and the premise itself is very much set up straight away.
With so many films recycling old storylines, it’s nice to see a film that subverts expectations in interesting ways. These might be only slight details and subtle “adjustments” to well established conventions, true, but that’s more than many younger filmmakers can offer us. Especially in areas as rigourous as “coming of age” stories. His piece might not be revolutionary in any way but Damien Chazelle skilfully crafted a sleek, elegant and intelligent debut film that’s powered by two excellent performances. Judging by the warm reception across the board, it’s safe to say he kicked off his directing career in style.
Whiplash is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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