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Review: Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Premise: An aspiring drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a music conservatory and comes under the mentorship of an instructor with a ruthless drive for perfectionism (J.K. Simmons).

What Works: Fast paced editing and rapid camera movement first came in vogue in filmmaking of the 1980s and at that time it was generally referred to as “MTV editing” because it was similar to and often derived from the frantic styles of music videos. Those musical shorts are no longer MTV’s primary programming content but the editing style remains and as major directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze graduated from music videos and into Hollywood films that style has become a normal part of filmmaking. Whiplash shows the influence of music videos in the way it is shot and edited but it applies that style to a jazz band and specifically to the struggle of a young drummer who dreams of greatness. As one of the film’s characters bemoans, jazz performances aren’t the draw that they used to be and contemporary works rarely have the liveliness and precision of the great works of the genre’s heyday. One of the many accomplishments of Whiplash is the way it restores the excitement and edginess of live performances to the jazz form. In doing so, director Damien Chazelle has made one of the most properly cinematic movies of 2014. The film buzzes with energy throughout but especially in the musical scenes. Despite the fact that it has no singing, Whiplash is a musical; the film has several musical numbers which are woven into the film as rehearsals and competitive performances. These musical numbers crackle with energy, putting so many recent adaptations of Broadway productions to shame and exposing how tired and cliché they’ve become. Unlike a lot of traditional musicals, the numbers of Whiplash are integrated into the movie in such a way that they drive character and plot rather that stopping the movie dead to allow the actors to show off, and the final drum solo is an amazing bit of musicianship, cinematography, and editing. Whiplash is led by Miles Teller, an actor who first showed his potential in The Spectacular Now, and this film capitalizes on Teller’s ability to be both cocky and sympathetic. Teller’s character is set against a ruthless instructor played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons. What’s fascinating about Simmons’ character is that he’s an antagonist but not a villain. As the conductor of a competitive jazz band and an instructor at a musical conservatory, the character sees his mission to push his students beyond their own preconceived limitations and he does so with the tact of a military drill instructor. This is where Whiplash manages to be a little subversive. Through Simmons’ character, the movie viciously critiques a society that endorses mediocrity. Whiplash is about the drive for greatness and what it takes to achieve it but does not sugarcoat failure.

What Doesn’t: Whiplash tends to isolate the drummer from the rest of the band. Anyone who has been a part of a musical group understands that it requires a team effort. Miles Teller’s character and his fellow drummers are put on the spot by their conductor who spends an inordinate amount of time on them. This is one of two respects in which Whiplash may come across as false. The other is the way in which the filmmakers deal with the drummer’s romantic relationship with a young woman played by Melissa Benoist. Teller’s character initiates a romance with her and the two of them hit it off and then he abruptly ends the relationship halfway through the movie. This subplot is intended to put something emotional at stake but it adds very little to the picture.

Bottom Line: Whiplash is a great movie. It is wonderfully made, has terrific performances. and tells a story about the virtues of hard work without vindicating a sense of entitlement.

Episode: #526 (January 25, 2015)