For many, jazz music is characterised by a lyrical fluidity and looseness of structure. It’s a genre that lends itself well to improvisation, the ability to go where you like in a musical sense evoking an easy-going freedom, practically the essence of cool. But this coolness is earned – no ordinary musician can pick up an instrument and do Gershwin proud. The greats only became so due to countless hours of hard graft not seen by the casual observer. They pour their blood, sweat, and tears into reaching the top, and it’s this fluid combination that fascinates Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a film about the pursuit of perfection, and the cost when it becomes an all-consuming obsession.
The premise is as economical as the film itself; Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a first-year at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He’s a drummer and nurtures ambitions of reaching a level of brilliance occupied by his heroes, like Buddy Rich. He catches the eye of conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who is in charge of the best jazz band at the school. Andrew makes the cut but quickly realizes that Fletcher will go to extremes to get the very best out of his performers.
Right from the outset, Whiplash feels stripped down, closer to bare-bones storytelling than most features, and this approach is not simply restricted to the narrative. The style of the film is clean and uncluttered; the script is unencumbered by rambling dialogue, the colour palette is specific, and the cinematography is beautifully precise. In some cases this could amount to a cold and lifeless film, but contrarily this assured approach gives the film style and sets it free, so that unfettered by anything to weigh down its pace it thunders along with electricity in every frame. Whiplash is simply exhilarating, combining drumming scenes shot like an action film with the visceral intensity of a war film, all set to an infectious rhythm.
The exhilaration that this film produces comes in large part from Simmons and Teller, who both turn in career best performances. Their teacher-student relationship is what the whole film pivots around and what gives it a building energy. Fletcher is a character that inspires fear and reverence in equal measure and it’s easy to see why. Simmons fully conveys controlled ferocity so well that it starts to become unnerving when he talks at a normal register for too long. His presence alone is enough to dominate every scene he’s in. Simmons is likely a shoe-in for an Oscar but I feel credit is better shared equally with Teller whose visible stresses are lent emotional power by his boyish innocence. The former is the flint to the latter’s steel and when Simmons strikes, sparks fly.
There are more people in Andrew’s life but their relationships with him appear only to mark the extent of his obsession and the toll that it takes. This is necessary to achieve a singular focus and make Whiplash a study of the price of achieving perfection. Fletcher’s actions – whether done out of true conviction or true cruelty – are quite obviously dangerous and condemnable, but likewise are the extreme lengths that Andrew goes to become great not also condemnable? Is this really the only way to becoming a legend, and is it worth the cost? Chazelle’s script gives us all we need to ponder this and wisely leaves the uneasy questions to linger beyond the film’s bravura crescendo.