Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Running time: 100 minutes
RLRR LRLL RLRR LRLL
The above letters, where “R” represents “right” and “L” represents “left”, are known as a “single paradiddle”. This is one of the 40 drumming rudiments that altogether take thousands of palm-callouses to master. But as Whiplash masterfully demonstrates, there’s practice and then there’s practice. And for the very best of us, there’s yet more practice.
“Show me your rudiments,” growls an Oscar-worthy J.K Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a tyrannical drumming instructor to nineteen-year-old student Andrew (Miles Teller). Fletcher wears a black T-shirt and a grizzled visage etched in shadow. With his sharp, sinewy physicality and a veiny, bald head, Simmons’ first appearance commands fear with his presence alone – and that’s before he starts lobbing chairs.
Andrew shows his rudiments. Teller, who trained on the kit four hours a day for two months before filming, is convincing in his technical fluidity, but clearly not enough for Fletcher: a reverse shot reveals a now empty space where he had stood so intimidatingly a few moments before. This won’t be the first time the teacher gruffly registers his perfectionist disgust.
Jump cuts supply rhythm like a metronome as scenes play out in intricate grooves. Extreme close-ups are accents: a page of notes, a shuddering double bass string, an impressionistically bloodied hand. The tempo rises when Andrew is invited to play in New York’s best and most visibly nervous jazz ensemble. Fletcher growls: “Not my tempo,” as his new student/victim misses the beat by a hair. “You’re rushing.” Andrew is ordered to play again. “You’re dragging.” An airborne chair narrowly misses Andrew’s head. His “constructive” criticism is occasionally a literal weapon as well as a psychological one.
Music films typically aren’t as intense as Whiplash. A slow-mo bead of sweat seen dripping from a resonating crash cymbal calls to mind sports films, rather than any college-based campiness the genre might offer elsewhere. Forget Fame or Glee, think of Andrew as a weedy Rocky or Raging Bull. Extended from director Damien Chazelle’s 2013 short, the narrative culminates in a spectacular final drum solo set piece that amounts to a brutal showdown between pupil and master with all the testosterone of a boxing match.
According to Terence Fletcher: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” The quote sums up the teacher’s struggle against a modern-day mediocrity that has tainted his beloved art form. The borderline psychotic jazz teacher may clearly be the villain of the piece, but his passion is infectious, and permeates the entire film. Whiplash grips you like a drumstick in its interrogation of the artistic process with emotion, skill, and ambition. A hell of a jam. Good job, Chazelle.
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