(this is the second time I have written about Whiplash; I also wrote a review of it, a couple of hours after I saw it on an early Sunday morning last year, here. But I think enough time has passed and I’ve seen it enough times to warrant some form of longform investigation, although perhaps explanation is better, because all I’m really doing here is explaining why it’s a masterpiece. Anyway, enjoy).
Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is a film that works phenomenally well, because it plunges us headfirst into the headstates of two warring characters, and because it is a film that has been made with an innate understanding of the inherent musicality of the moving image. It is compelling, impossibly compelling, because it works as the best music does, it instantly hooks you, and involves the listener/viewer immediately. That the dramatic content of the film is almost Greek in its scope is what makes it great. Form and content are in perfect symbiosis here.
It is also, crucially, a dark and unsympathetic film that works at a heightened emotional pitch and awareness of its two central characters. When we first see protagonist Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), he is alone, in the dark, in a room. He is discovered, literally, by the sadistic jazz teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). From this opening, we can see the main arcs of these two characters begin to pan out; Andrew, talented, driven, and a little precocious, is almost waiting to be found. Fletcher, on the other hand, is just passing through. The games he plays with Andrew begin here- listen to the knowing way Simmons delivers the line “oopsie daisy, forgot my jacket”. He is taunting him through the very act of being there, such is Andrew’s desire to be found.
Further scenes establish and contextualise Andrew’s life; he’s at a top music conservatory, he’s close with his dad, Jim (Paul Reiser), and he lusts after a young woman working at the local cinema called Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But music is really the driving force behind everything he does. He doesn’t question it, he doesn’t analyse it, it is simply the brute fact of his life. A family dinner establishes this; when two sports students question his aims, he becomes harsh, and brittle. It’s not so much that Andrew is unlikeable, or cruel, he simply doesn’t respond well to things being in his way.
This explains, in turn, why he puts up with the cruel and sadistic treatment he has dished out to him by Fletcher. Fletcher’s philosophy, as he explains late in the film, is that he only pushes people in the hope that he might push them to greatness. He gives the example of Charlie Parker being abused by Buddy Rich (only very debatably true, by the way); that abuse only forced Charlie Parker to go away and truly become “Bird”, something that would never have happened if Rich was more placid. It’s an infallible logic, and we can see how it would dominate one’s worldview. But there is still a crucial difference between Rich and Fletcher’s approach, because Rich cared not for Parker (in the anecdote), but alternatively, we sense that each day Fletcher does not find his “Parker” is a loss Fletcher takes personally.
These men together in a room is something of a mutually assured destruction. It’s not that Neiman isn’t good, it’s that good isn’t good enough. Every act of violence at his hands is just a ploy to get him to tip over into that threshold of greatness. And Neiman yearns for it. But what they both understand is that greatness, like beauty, is elusive, and the conditions of it arising cannot be pinned down. Fletcher’s attempts to replicate Buddy Rich’s tactic are akin to a child performing an incomplete science experiment, with no instructions; quietly doomed.
But this poisonous relationship is one neither of them can turn away from, like a lot of poisonous relationships. Andrew cuts things off with Nicole before they’ve begun, and things with his dad start to become more fraught; but that’s okay, because Fletcher promises greatness, and that is what Andrew must be.
This is where the form of the film comes into play. This is a film that was shot on a low budget, and contains mostly interior scenes, and which has a microscopic focus on its subjects and the music. It’s almost hermetically sealed to within that remit. But the editing belies a film with a scope beyond itself. This is what I meant about the film working as music; the film takes on the form of the solos and Big Band pieces that the characters perform, the camera moving forwards, backwards, to the sides, swooping and ducking as the drumsticks pound and spin.
Chazelle utilises the frame in endlessly inventive, innovative ways, constantly searching for new methods of presenting the characters, be it from above, from behind, panning from the floor, utilising a microscopic zoom to indicate a sea change in a character’s point of view. When the characters are still, i.e not performing music, the camera is still. But as the notes pour out like an inspired oil spill of emotion and drama, the camera mimics, ogling the instruments, highlighting them.
The lighting almost serves as a meeting point between the high drama of the subject matter and the aggressively composed nature of the film itself. This is a dankly lit film, using overhead lighting in almost every scene, as if the characters feel that the lights of judgement are bearing down on them. It indicates Andrew’s self-scrutiny, and in the performing scenes, where the lights are on you, this means that the audience is effectively absent in Andrew’s eyes, and since he’s only really playing for Fletcher, this works well.
Even the high-contrast colour correction, striking and effective as it is, manages to convey clues all of its own, like the exceptionally stark blackness of Fletcher’s shirt, which feels like a statement. It’s amazing how much mastery of each detail Chazelle manages to fit into each scene.
They say that the best films are the ones that live on in the mind, that keep you wondering about the fates of the characters, that leave you pondering their meanings and hidden implications. It has also been said that it is not what a film is about, but how it is about it. This is a film that is about something ultimately compelling, in the most compelling of ways. It is also a film I think about with regularity, and return to often. It asks some genuine questions; about talent, and pushing ourselves, and making the most of our lives. It does not settle for easiness, but works a fine line in the kind of ambiguity that is healthy for discerning viewers of film, where enough information is provided for us to have a vague conception of things, but not enough for us to ever know all the answers.
All films, ultimately, are stuck in some kind of question and answer loop; that is, they set up a scenario, or a character makes a decision, and if the film is good then the audience will ask how this scenario will resolve itself, or, why did that character do that. The very best films point to questions beyond the film itself, and are about the way we live, or some facet of the world, or a corner of human psychology.
This is one of the very best films.