In New York, a young musician (Miles Teller) who aspires to become a top jazz drummer is pushed to his limits by a ruthless teacher (J.K Simmons).
Whiplash, the riveting second feature by Franco-American writer-director Damien Chazelle, starts with a completely black screen and the sound of escalating drum beats.
One might be forgiven for thinking this will be a tale whose young protagonist journeys from the darkness into the light. That sounds uplifting. But it would be closer to the truth to picture a rug under 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller) as he practices until his hands are bloody from effort. Now picture Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) —the most redoubtable instructor at the highest rated music conservatory in New York—yanking that rug out from under Andrew, sending snare and cymbals flying.
That doesn't seem constructive or like something you should pay tuition to experience.
Then Fletcher tells him to get back to work and, much like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown only to snatch it away just as the kick is nigh, Fletcher pulls the rug out again. We get the feeling Andrew could have played the assigned beat so perfectly that Charlie Parker himself would have risen from the dead just to listen and Fletcher would still punish the talented young man. Physically, mentally—take your pick. This slave-driving teacher has quite a repertoire of nasty tactics.
Nothing is ever good enough for Fletcher and no sliver of status is ever permanently acquired. You might say he's vicious and erratic in order to keep his students on their toes, but you wouldn't put it past him to break into a student's room at night to saw off said toes—and then bust him down a grade for wobbling when he walks.
When people speak about violent movies they usually mean throats get slit or stuff blows up. Whiplash is a concentrated dose of emotional (well, mostly) violence. ‘Merciless’ is far too kind a word when it comes to describing Fletcher's educational approach. (Somebody at Sundance coined the capsule description “Full Metal Jacket at Julliard" and that's a spot-on assessment of what the movie is like.)
We know that Fletcher is a fictional character played by an actor but, the thing is, we’re scared of him. He's stuck in two dimensions on a movie screen, but we're still worried that he'll notice us and single us out for hazing.
In the care-and-feeding of self esteem dept., Andrew gets very mixed messages at school. But it's also apparent that his low-key dad loves him but isn't much of a role model for his ambitious son. At a family dinner, with athletic cousins in attendance, it's made painfully clear that sports are valued more than music.
The athletes think that sports are objective and music is subjective but Andrew knows that musical excellence is just as clear-cut as a dazzling field goal or a track record if you're attuned to the tuning fork of excellence. Fletcher can judge excellence or the lack thereof in as little as one measly note. Displease him and there won't even be enough time to say "But..." in your own defence.
Chazelle set out to be a professional musician ("I was a jazz drummer in a band with a fairly sadistic teacher") but says he burned out on the scary aspects of practice and performance.
"I hadn't seen the physical anguish on screen before. People talk about jazz as a music of freedom but for me it was fear," said Chazelle at the Deauville Festival of American Film in Normandy, France where, on Sept 13, the movie took the Grand Prix in the 14-film competition and also won the audience prize. (It nabbed comparable distinctions in Sundance—although it's worth noting that the Deauville jury included Costa Gavras, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and incoming Cannes Film Festival president Pierre Lescure. In other words, powerhouse Europeans, anointing an American indie project which also wowed the locals.)
Chazelle's father is French and his mother is American. Growing up he spent time in the very different educational systems of both countries. The director believes that American kids are encouraged for even feeble accomplishments because parents and teachers are frightened that criticism might scar a young psyche. The flip side of all that loving support and encouragement is that if you don't grow up to be a winner, then you must be a loser and American society really, really prefers winners. The French are hard workers but they don't assign quite the same degree of inherent admirableness to work for its own sake, striving for a greater balance between toil and leisure, work and family.
"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'Good job'," says Fletcher to Andrew with all the mocking disdain he can muster. (And he has a seemingly bottomless supply of mocking disdain.)
Chazelle says, "Something I never truly experienced as a drummer was ecstasy. I was never going to be Buddy Guy —which engenders all sorts of questions about whether genius musicians are born or made."
Chazelle adds that "for me, 99 percent of making films is fear and stress and anguish —but that 1 percent gives you something you can't predict."
There wouldn't be a movie —or there would presumably be a very different one —without Teller and J.K. Simmons. Teller, in person, is a tall, confident, 27-year old man, but in the film he is completely convincing as a 19-year-old with the slightly tentative body language of an unformed personality still feeling its way.
We're rooting for him when he gets around to asking the candy counter clerk at a movie theatre to go on a date, and we want to slap sense into him —between two cymbals, say —when he tells the girl that she doesn't fit into his plans because he'll be practicing all the time and she'll just resent his devotion to his craft.
It's a movie convention that when the story boils down to two adversaries, we long to see them in hand-to-hand combat. Chazelle finds the cinematic equivalent of the white hat/black hat showdown in a classic Western but imbues it with equal parts physicality and intellectual grit.
There are many impressive aspects to this film, not least of which is the fact that it was shot in 19 days, with Los Angeles standing in for New York.
"The U.S. is very punitive as a society," Chazelle emphasises. "If you don't make it, your life is over. In the U.S., you're coddled as a kid and punished as an adult. This reward/punishment pattern is very schizo."
Chazelle, at age 29, and Teller, at age 27, are in no danger of being labelled losers anytime soon.
Tuesday 5 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Music, Drama
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist