I’m 16 years old and I’m in Biology class; I usually find myself wandering in my thoughts as the lesson passes by me, much of what is taken in falls out of circuit but I process enough to maintain a mild comprehension of the subject. A moment catches me off guard, the teacher calls my name and asks a question, I sit dormant as anxiety rushes through me, trying as fast as I can to assemble the correct response, eventually leading to a point of spoken panic; I have given an answer that scratches only the fundamentals of an excellent response, disappointment rushes through the teacher’s veins and speaks out my inability to comprehend and lack of effort, I take all of it in with a layer of embarrassment on the side; am I left discouraged or motivated? At the time, self-awareness was not my strong suit, but I would like to think I was motivated, as grades began to pick up and my attention has found focus during stretches of lectures, though I wish I could say the same with optimism towards my self-esteem.
Every year, there is always that one film that is much deserving of accolades as any of the obvious greats, but it is understood that this film wouldn’t reach top honours in the awards circuit due to its simple and intimate nature. In 2013 that film was Spike Jonze’s Her, the film that was buried under the triumphant efforts of its peers, but it was the film that captures the audience’s heart and manages to stay there permanently; last year, that film was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. A film that dramatically explores the battle of nurture versus fear in regards to tapping a person’s potential. Each approach features their own rewards and flaws that this film examines wonderfully, and it seeks into the depths of our own souls for the experiences that defined us, forcing us to reflect on the influences from our past and analysing our current positions, understanding whether we are currently dominated by satisfaction or regret.
Whiplash follows an entry-level Jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), at the Shaffer University, and he aspires to be one of the legends, standing alongside figures like Buddy Rich. He is stumbled upon one night during a solo practice session by a conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who places upon him a set of drumming instructions, which he immediately followed, but was cut off by his rude and sudden departure. This was the perfect introduction to the two central characters of the film, showcasing their personalities in the minutest of ways; a boy with great skill and a man with an antagonistic attitude. In this little moment they share, Fletcher understands that there is potential in the boy waiting to be pushed and Neiman who finds deep respect for a man with such reputation but has yet to earn it.
The two would find themselves colliding once again when Fletcher enters into Neiman’s class, immediately displaying a sense of dominance coming from his cold and fear-inducing personality, but also by his already firmly constructed notoriety and artistic respect that even Neiman’s class conductor stood back during his entrance. Fletcher’s agenda was already clear but he maintains his barrier as he isolates a musician one by one to showcase their abilities, reaching towards Neiman to gain better confidence in his decision. Neiman impresses and he is then transferred to Fletcher’s class. Damien Chazelle perfectly creates build up in tension, highlighting the lingering potential of the struggle that may be laid upon Neiman’s future, but it never becomes obvious at this point, as it is felt but never fully seen. We are still ignorant of how intense things would become for Neiman, knowing only that things seems to be moving up for him.
Andrew enters the class, but as an alternate for their core drummer, turning the pages and hoping for the time it would be his moment to prove his abilities to Fletcher and the class. We see the optimism in his eyes, and looking back on it now, it feels more heartbreaking given that the journey he finds himself nudged upon would be one of struggle and pain. In his participation, he sees Fletcher for what he truly is, one who demands the highest of expectations and places upon an abundance of punishment to those who disappoint him. Before Andrew’s supposedly crowning moment, he is treated with kindness and confidence by Fletcher, during which Andrew confides back with sincerity his own personal vulnerabilities, unknowing of the consequences of his exposure. Andrew begins to play and he is constantly halted by Fletcher in order to find the right tempo, but with every miniature mistake that Andrew provides, becomes a uprising layer of frustration that boils underneath Fletcher, eventually bursting out and abusing him utilising his deepest susceptibilities; leaving Andrew with a position of embarrassment and shame that has started his road for his reach of perfection and acceptance.
Chazelle constructs his scenes like a master, constantly creating build up in the interactions between Andrew and Fletcher, achieving unpredictability and harshness in Fletcher’s outbursts, whether small or large, breaking the character and the audience’s barriers down just as we were rebuilding it. These moments are clearly exaggerated to amplify its ideas and emotions, but it is constructed with such precision and with such intimacy that it seeps into our souls, becoming immersed into the atmosphere and finding ourselves as fractured victims. The film rarely lets itself take on the perspective of a spectator, we are with Andrew through most of the way, saved only by the climactic scene where we become spectators of his eventual outcome, we are no longer empathising with him and instead we become sympathetic observers, analysing the factors that came into play and the prognosis of his evolution. I am torn on whether to see the finale as a moment of triumph or a moment of tragedy, it juggles back and forth within my mind, unable to let itself find footing and become concrete. It immediately sparks discussion and I get the feeling, the more I speak about it, the more I find myself becoming more indecisive. Possibly Chazelle doesn’t want the answer to be definitive, maybe there is no right or wrong decision in the way our life should progress, and that we should just follow on what we personally believe is right for us; for Andrew it seems to be clear.
The film throughout maintains its course as a story of ambition, motivation, and conflict, set between its two central leads, but the film does manage to provide other factors of Andrew’s life, we get a glimpse of the relationship he develops and ultimately sabotages with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who works at the candy bar at a local cinema; the two characters meet in the cutest way I could imagine, the emotions are running through me as I am writing this, and as Andrew’s commitment began to seek deeper into his passion and ambition, he decides it was best if their relationship was terminated early where affection and connection have yet to run deep between one another. This sub-plot never becomes a distraction to the film’s key plotline as the decisions that Andrew makes becomes integral to our overall perspective towards him; it shows that he is driven to succeed, ensuring that unnecessary barriers of unconditional comfort and approval are eliminated within his path, but it is also able to highlight the sadness and regret that come with his decision, one that would have provided a less destructive path, a life that would have provided him a sense of ease and satisfaction that could potentially save his life. Chazelle understands that in life there would be no easy decisions, especially in ones that are life-changing; there would always be a drawback behind its luscious rewards.
The music that plays throughout this film are fantastic enough on their own, the jazzed fuelled soundtrack provides the film a sense of coolness behind its atmosphere, an upbeat groove that balances the film’s darker shades. It becomes an important piece of the character’s development, seeing the evolving intensity and perfection in Andrew’s drumming makes his journey all the more convincing. It also helps abundantly that Miles Teller provides his own drumming in this film, a layer of authenticity that amplifies the passion that runs through his nerves and the punishment on his physical and mental wellbeing. Rarely have I ever seen a film that utilises its music as deeply as it does on Whiplash.
Now when it comes to the performances, immediately it was apparent Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons have reached their creative peak, providing performances that aren’t short of power, driving the film to such dramatic heights that at times you forget to breathe. Teller gives us a performance that is down to earth and empathetic, one that drives us in wanting him to succeed in his goals, despite the destructive consequences that come with them. His heartache and punishment is further amplified when under Simmons’ fiery delivery, one that immediately recalls the aggressive delivery of R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Simmons rarely ever gives a moment of compassion, and when he does, it would be revealed that there is a much darker agenda that loiters underneath it; ergo making his unapologetic turn as this hard-shelled figure all the more captivating. Simmons throughout most of his career have been side-shifted in his role choices, portraying thankless roles that provides the film the extra flavour it needs, stealing scenes with every chance he gets. This was also an enormous break for Teller, who has now proven, impressively at a young age, that he has what it takes to make it big in this art form; we see his talent in this film as both a musician and an actor, one that was unnoticed by the Academy.
Very few films could put me in such a tight grip as Whiplash, with scene after scene of dramatically rich moments that unconsciously holds your breath and leaves you at the edge of your toes. It is a wonderful platform for the film’s two lead performances, knocking us over with each dialogue spoken and performed body language. By the end it leaves its audiences like the crashing cymbals of Andrew Neiman’s drum kit, drenched with sweat and blood, unable to contain ourselves from such abuse to the senses, and I do mean it in a good way.