Whiplash (2014)

The New York Film Festival opened last week with David Fincher’s Gone Girl and continues until the New York premiere of Birdman to close the festival. In between those films fall a massive spectrum of features, short films, documentaries and retrospective screenings that include entries from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

Whiplash isn’t one of those big huge premieres held up by the strength of name recognition and pre-release buzz. Technically the NYFF screening wasn’t even a premiere at all, as Whiplash first popped up at Sundance last winter. But if any “small” flick can surge through festivals like this and have a strong opening later this month, it’s this one. Less tangentially: Whiplash is one of the leanest and most intense films you’re likely to see this year.

Starring Miles Teller as a hopeful young jazz drummer and J.K. Simmons as his brutally demanding band instructor, Whiplash uses a jazz combo at a prestigious NYC music school as the basis for an edge-of-your-seat battle of wits between the student and the teacher. Skepticism is allowed at this point – intense, edge-of-your-seat drama in a jazz band? Really? How could enough drama for a two-hour film come of such a staid and unadventurous seeming premise and setting?

A large part of the credit here goes to stars Teller and Simmons, who are nothing short of spellbinding in their respective roles. Simmons’s bandleader Terence Fletcher isn’t just tough on his students – he’s downright abusive. He chucks chairs at students and laughs when they cry. He builds hope in individual players and then cuts them from the group at the slightest sign of weakness. He forces Teller’s Andrew to drum at an impossibly fast tempo for hours. Straight. He learns about the families and the loves and lives of his students and uses the information to his advantage, all to torture his students and scare the ever-lovin’ out of them until they play the damn tune correctly. Simmons is a phenomenal actor who’s been a part of hundreds of films, but Whiplash may hold his greatest role to date.

The rest (and possibly majority) of the credit is due to writer and director Damien Chazelle. Chazelle’s filming of Whiplash puts the viewer in the band in a way that few music movies are able to accomplish. We see every hit of every drum, every muscle tensing, feel every bead of sweat threatening distraction on Andrew’s face. The editing of the film is lightning fast and chock full of complex shots, and the overall effect achieves a simple but vital goal: it makes music exciting, in turn making Whiplash an intense ride. The bandroom intensity is enough to make That Thing You Do! look like a Disney Channel Original Movie, although I suppose it already kind of does.

J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller and Damien Chazelle at NYFF 52 - September 2014
J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller and Damien Chazelle at NYFF 52 – September 2014

Fantastic directing and editing aside, Chazelle’s exposition on the writing process and the characters in the film during the post-screening Q&A only made the film more palatable after the fact. The conductor Fletcher is especially complex, and deceptively so, as what could be perceived as a twist on his motivations comes to light late in the film. This “method to the madness”, if that’s actually what it is, effectively flips Fletcher’s abhorrent treatment of his young students upside down. If his extreme behavior spawns a cathartic release of sorts (what Chazelle referred to as a “primal moment”) for a young musician and turns him into the next Charlie Parker, are the means to the end acceptable? Is there a line? This question is one that Andrew himself asks to Fletcher, and Fletcher says absolutely not: “I could never discourage the next Charlie Parker, because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.”

This theme is not an entirely new one in films about artists, but Whiplash makes everything freshly original. Like an early predecessor All Night Long, Whiplash doesn’t just use music as a backdrop for a fabricated drama. The music is the drama for the entire runtime, right down to a Machiavellian long con in the final act that uses a performance at a jazz festival as leverage. Teller, Simmons, and Chazelle all deserve any accolades they have coming to them, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t win a single thing. It’s enough that Whiplash will almost certainly make a big splash upon release in mid-October, and it’s heartening to see a relatively tiny movie receive such a warm welcome at NYFF.

A quick postscript shoutout to two individuals sitting near me: Ethan Hawke, on hand to speak about his new documentary Seymour: An Introduction, and the kid in the red shirt with a plastic grocery bag of pizza sitting down the row. It was inexplicably wonderful to see you both.

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