Watching Whiplash is like being at a jazz concert, the musicians are truly involved, and the soundtrack reveals jazz standards which are enhanced by both the quality of the interpretation and the cinematography.
Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old talented drummer, wants to be the best jazz drummer in the world. At Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the foremost music school of the country, he succeeds in getting into the famous studio band of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a fearsome and cruel teacher who pushes his students beyond their limits.
In this film about music, the great challenge for the actors was to play as the best jazz musicians ever. And they did it. They take us with them into the innermost universe of music. We can admire their performances all along the film, especially when there are few dialogues, because these moments stress the role of the eyes which actually lead most of the interactions. However, even if the interpretation of J.K. Simmons (Fletcher) is striking, the continual insults from his frightening character are stifling.
One of the best and most impressive features of the movie lies in the cinematography which is, here, the most significant tool used for transmitting emotions besides the soundtrack. All kinds of camera angles are used, and the close-up shots are really thorough, focusing especially on instruments (cymbals, trumpets, saxophones, contrabass) and details such as drumsticks, scores, sweat and blood drops on the instruments, or Fletcher’s hands. Everything looks real, and the musicians truly seem to be playing with their innermost soul. Most of the feelings are passed on through high-angle shots and low-angle shots which each time reveal the superiority and authority of Fletcher on his students. Brought into another world, full of catchy and swinging sounds, we discover the sensual curves of drums while the camera is gazing lovingly at all the instruments.
It is not necessary to love music and jazz to appreciate the movie, even if music is omnipresent and even if jazz fans will be the first to be pleased. Musical words (reeds, double time swing, tempo) are used all along the film but it remains intelligible even for those who do not play music. Besides, many references to Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker, Bob Ellis, Jo Jones, and to pieces like Whiplash and Caravan, are quoted during the movie.
Music is omnipresent in the foreground, either pieces or just the sound of cymbals. Sometimes, there is no background music to allow the audience to focus on the few dialogues. We can deeply feel all along the film the pressure, the pain and the anxiety of the musicians that are emphasized by the silent background or by the extreme close-ups on instruments, on sweat, on blood drops on drums, on Fletcher’s stern face or hands ready to give the start to play. Damien Chazelle‘s incredible talent to convey feelings and emotions brings us into an unknown world.
Moreover, beyond music and jazz, Whiplash also tackles existential questions, notably our aim in life. What do we want to do with our lives? And what about the idea of being forgotten? The film is thought-provoking about what we leave behind us after we disappear.
Then, the character of Fletcher makes us think about the expression “good job” — uttered after a concert or a rehearsal to tell the musicians that it was good but not the best — and its signification. In fact, we do not push ourselves further if we do a good job whereas we can do better. It reminds us that we can always go further like Andrew does. However, another question remains, are humiliation and violence the key to success in music? Does it really have to happen this way?
Finally, anyone can appreciate the movie, although it focuses sometimes too much on the musical technique. We are not so much carried away by the good soundtrack itself but rather by the harmony between the actors’ performances and the highly sophisticated cinematography. As a drama, Whiplash is a masterpiece that will keep you in suspense and surprise you until the very end.
Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman
J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher
Paul Reiser as Jim Neiman
Melissa Benoist as Nicole
Austin Stowell as Ryan
Jayson Blair as Travis
Chris Mulkey as Uncle Frank
Damon Grupton as Mr. Kramer
Nate Lang as Carl Tanner
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Jason Blum
Screenplay by Damien Chazelle
Music by Justin Hurwitz