Review of Whiplash (2014), Damien Chazelle

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.’


Analytical Review, by Moira Plater.

There isn't a more anxiety-inducing film than Whiplash, that captures paranoia on screen, by having every scene layer tension in the most gripping, and raw way possible. Whiplash isn't a high-intensity sci-fi or action film, where the world's fate rests on the protagonist’s shoulders, but it’s a psychological thriller with a generic trope of a student who is trying to pursue their passion, and eventually meets a mentor who pushes them to be great. This trope can be subbed with most interests, whether that’s sport, to culinary skills. But what makes Whiplash such a turbulent and intense film, and what makes it differ to any other story of pursuing a passion, is the true plotline, of ‘sacrificing yourself for art’.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), 19, is an easy-going, good-natured drummer and a humble jazz-enthusiast, who’s skilled in and enjoys what he does, but it is only upon meeting Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the Studio band, that Andrew wants to become the best; the next Billie Holiday or Buddy Rich. He gets into the band, and then undergoes Fletcher's abusive ‘mentoring’, that pushes him to the very limit. It is through this narrative, that you follow Andrew’s exhausting and provoking journey to become ‘the best’, in Chazelle’s raw and unfiltered masterpiece.

Damien Chazelle is a visionary; there is thought and reasoning behind every shot, every angle, every sound, every color, every line. From the opening scene, to the climactic end, the movement of the film is all so very carefully mapped out, and perfectly filmed.

It is geniusly paced, with every scene heightening the already staggering tensity. The music, (being specifically classic-jazz performances), adds to the overall atmosphere and rising action, as the soundtrack follows the plot through its arcs. Each scene has a known purpose, and pulls on all of your senses to become completely absorbed in the film.

Chazelle utilises the versatility of camera angles and shots to create a sensual experience for the audience, that explores the world of pursual in a way like nothing has before. From the very first wide shot at the start of the film, it gives the scene a meaning and purpose. The wide shot of Andrew practicing on his kit, which gradually pans inwards, insites the view of the kit being an extension of Andrew; he’s his own person without it, but the drums are something that aid and support him. Many of the scenes at the beginning are captured through wide-two-shots, however throughout the progression of the film, and with the interference of Fletcher, the shots change with Andrew’s character.

Andrew undergoes consequential mental and emotional abuse from Fletcher as his mentor, (fantastically portrayed by Simmons), and this is mainly the cause of Andrew’s desire to become a success. Fletcher is the epitome of fear; as soon as he walks through the door, you’d be able to hear a pin drop. He is distressing, imposing, intimidating- a user of all derogatory slurs, and spokesman of the most memorable, thought provoking advice in the film. Fletcher and Andrew’s relationship is a main focal point in the film; the dynamic of student and master is a tale told repeatedly- but this correspondence is different knowing the desires of each character. Fletcher repeatedly tells the story of Charlie Parker, who became the legend he is when Joe Jones threw a cymbal to his head. We slightly understand his enigma, when he correlates to Charlie Parker’s story, by hurling a chair at Andrew on his first day. Although we understand the depths of his zeal, like Andrew, we have to wonder ‘is there a line?’, because at face value, his teaching methods are cruel, and disparaging.

It is through Andrew’s trauma as a student, that we start to see his character unravel, and he becomes dislikable- yet as a bystander we also sympathise with him. His passion is there, but it manifests into himself and becomes toxic; and through his decline as an artist, we start to question if the pain and failure justifies the outcome. This is Andrew’s journey to achieve his goal, and while it does foreshadow his eventual success, the experience in itself is still incredibly hostile and detrimental, and our stance on his dream changes, and we realise that this odyssey is an unfortunate one.

His loss of control is shown through the use of handheld, uncut takes, which are unsteady and lack focus. These choppy scenes match the rapid rhythm of the film, becoming faster and louder. Andrew’s transition into darkness is presented in many ways: one being through his clothing. He starts the film wearing light, cotton shirts, of white and pastel blue, that eventually transcend into a black ensemble by the end of the film, that almost mimics Fletcher’s usual wardrobe choice.

Images of blood are used- symbolic for his effort. There are many scenes of Andrew drawing blood from relentless practice, and the crimson soiling that litters his kit almost symbolises how Andrew is becoming part of the mechanism; jazz is becoming a part of his blood.

Colour and lighting is also utilised effectively; the green-blue tones used to portray New York's unsettling monotony, compared to the warm-golden-brown lights that bathe Andrew in a spotlight worth savouring when he’s drumming. The dark and rich colour palette used throughout the film speaks jazz- it’s almost as if you're sitting in the jazz club, as the spotlights glow gold for the performances worth watching, and the intermissions are only barely lit, by the murky bottle-green hues. It’s like the scope of Andrew’s mind: whatever isn’t jazz or drumming, isn’t really worth his attention, but his life revolves around it ultimately. The first transition in itself uses sound and lighting in a harmonious way, to set the scene of New York’s nightlife, in the hues of icy-blues and pine-greens that shade in the buildings.

It is worth noting that the film was produced and created in a similar fashion to a 70’s thriller, which was a genre that reinvented itself in the decade, due to the suspicion and paranoia of the time, and in which American realism is the prominent style depicted. Examples of films that display this use of modernised-film-noir being Dirty Harry and The French Connection, this uncensored, grimy and gritty appearance deplores society by portraying the city as a ‘crime-central’, and uses violent and graphic images worth X-Rating. Key concepts of the 70’s thriller being dislikable characters that the audience root for, and not having a clear good-and-evil, are used in Whiplash in an adjacent fashion; the main protagonist isn’t exactly agreeable, and there isn’t a clear antagonist either. The film doesn’t focus so much on New York, but when the city is the focal point, the images of the city used are grotty and murky newsagents and alleyways- not exactly bedazzling.

Chazelle's scrupulous attention to detail really has a profound effect on the film; perfect additions- whether you notice them or not.

The ending of Whiplash: this analysis feels necessary because it has got to be the most stressful, exhausting, yet incredible last 20 minutes of triumph ever, in film history; the ending is impactful in every possible way, and Damien Chazelle pulls out all the stops for this act of sheer perfection. The editing, the transitions, the use of literally every type of camera angle and shot out there, have you clawing at your seat, and your heart beating out of your chest.

For context, Andrew performs the worst performance to date: there is a scattered applause of pity; no one has ever seen a display that bad and it won’t be forgotten. This has been a set up by Fletcher, who aims to bring Andrew down with him.

In a situation where most would retreat, Andrew walks back onto the stage, and gives the absolute performance of his life. The band, Fletcher, and the audience are in shock, but Andrew isn’t playing directly for Fletcher anymore, he’s playing for himself, and Andrew plays on, each beat of the drum heightening the rhythm and speed of his ambition. He is relentless and does not care for the audience- we don’t see them once in this performance. He has a point to prove, and pushes through, despite the band’s utter confusion and Fletcher’s harrowing remarks, which only seem to fuel him more. This display is the climax of the film, and as a witness, the beat encapsulates your heart; jaw dropped, you’re fixed on the rhythm- this is the pinnacle of art, and we understand it. Andrew is driven, focused, and ruthless, each shot of his concentration, seeping through as muscle memory. Fletcher seems to acknowledge what he has created, and starts to coach him in his performance of a lifetime, fixing Andrew’s cymbal instead of hurling it, as a form of alliance.

Andrew is a machine- he has become his instrument. The quick shots convey this; the seconds of the drums, to him, to his blood on the cymbals, sweat on his face, the transition of the band, to Andrew, to Fletcher, to the drums, the overhead shot, high angle, low angle, the aerial view. As the instrument himself, he is lost in his ambition and determination. The film closes at this.

What we notice in this rhythmic display of passion, is the look of horror on his father’s face, as he looks upon the dehumanization of his son for what it is; Andrew rejects society to become the engine of Fletcher’s machine. At the end of the film, there is a candid shot of Andrew’s face, dripping in sweat, which moves to Fletcher’s eyes, as he focuses all of his attention on the person he is trying to prove himself to. In this moment, is the dark realisation that Andrew has buried his past character, for the sake of his art- he’s a new person, and not necessarily a good one. This is his transformation.

Fletcher has won, at the expense of Andrew's character and his life: he has become Fletcher's, Charlie Parker.

And yet Andrew has also triumphed; he’s become great… but at what cost?

When it comes to Whiplash, you aren't just watching the film, instead, you become part of the audience, always on the edge of your seat; whether that's to stand as part of the encore, or out of the gripping rage that the film brings- Chazelle creates such a formidable atmosphere, that there is a fine line between awe and anger.

Chazelle played the drums in a jazz band himself, and this is evident in the film's outlook.

There is a sense of realism when watching Whiplash, that isn’t often achieved with most films- despite the 'extremist’ plot, it feels organic, and holds verisimilitude, instead of an overpolished vista that might even seem exaggerated.

Watching the film myself for the first time was a shocking experience overall- the shifts in plot were able to keep me on edge the whole time, but during the last act, out of awe and astonishment, I felt almost paralysed. The drumming itself was so captivating, and so the plot lines only added to my bewilderment. The high the film ends on, as well as the filming style and the soundtrack, really had an astounding effect on me, and for that, it’s earned its place in my highest ranked films.

Whiplash tells the story of sacrifice for art, with impeccable cinematography and writing, at the hands of Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won ten well-deserved awards for this movie alone, and the movie won three awards each for Best Sound-Mixing, and Best Editing. Chazelle proves himself as a director through this cinematic masterpiece- there is endless to say about the film, each scene can be unpicked with meaning and notion, and it is a definite must-watch. Whether you’re a jazz-enthusiast or not, or have an eye for cinematography, this film is a memorable find that'll have you in reverence, for more reasons than one.

Whiplash demonstrates the face value message, that there is a destructive price an artist may have to pay for greatness, and by following the arcs of the characters to their climax’, we have to wonder, if consequentialism really does make sense: do the ends justify the means?

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