Director / Screenplay: Damien Chazelle / Editing: Tom Cross / DP: Sharone Meir / Score: Justin Hurwitz
Cast: Miles Teller / J. K. Simmons / Paul Reiser / Melissa Benoist / Austin Stowell / Nate Lang
Show Me Your Rudiments…
Before La La Land (2017) cemented Damien Chazelle’s reputation as a ‘Director to Watch’ TM, was this startling breakout film, Whiplash (2014). What do you need to know going-in? It’s about a young man at a prestigious music conservatory in New York (the ‘Shaffer’, if you’re curious) who’s there to play drums. This prodigious, yet unshaped talent, is plucked from a first-year scratch band, by Terence Fletcher – the Shaffer’s pre-eminent, revered teacher / martinet, who sees ‘something’ in him worth drawing-out: but what’s it going to cost, to get him to the place where talent meets ambition head-on?
Yep: Blood, sweat and tears. Lots of it, in fact: this is no ‘kids from FAME’. There were times watching Whiplash, when it felt like a missing episode of the Rocky franchise, as our hero – Andrew Neimann – plunges his bloodied hands into ice-water. I half-expected him to start running up the museum steps and get into shadow-boxing!
It’s a familiar story, this one. The legend of the Hero being tested, dates back to Prometheus. He desired the secret of fire and was punished for his troubles by Zeus, who chained him to a rock and had an eagle pluck out his liver every day for eternity: Neimann should feel lucky he’s only got Fletcher to deal with… The hero’s journey takes many different forms and remains evergreen, simply because it’s so potent. In Chazelle’s version, it takes the form of an abusive pupil-teacher relationship, but it can be re-worked into any narrative shape: just recently, we’ve seen the Margot Robbie vehicle I, Tonya (2017), which told the same story but with a bullying mother and an ice-skating daughter, who’s talent emerges under mom’s strong hand. By the time you read this, I daresay there’ll be a newer example you could name…
To begin with, writer-director Chazelle had the script but couldn’t get funding; ‘who wants to see a movie about a drummer?’ seemed the refrain. So, he went about organising a short-film version of one of its key scenes, supported by two production companies. The result, was an eighteen-minute film, covering Neimann’s first experience with the school’s premier ‘Studio Band’ under the terrifying Fletcher. At such an early stage, all the production partners knew for sure was that, for there to be any eventual success for the project, they’d need top-drawer casting to pull it off. Luckily, Chazelle’s script was so tight and dazzling, even at that stage, that I think they could’ve tempted any character actor approached; material of this quality just doesn’t come along every day and an actor worth their salt would kill to be a part of something this good. The suggestion of using veteran character actor J. K. Simmons for the part of Fletcher was bold, but his interpretation and delivery for the short was so electrifying, he was a shoo-in when the chance came to make a feature-length version.
The short premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2013 and won the Jury Award for Fiction. The increased funding this attracted, allowed the feature-length version to begin later that same year. The shoot lasted just nineteen days, across a small number of locations and Chazelle was able to finish post-production duties and return to Sundance in 2014 with the finished film; if that’s not a hero’s journey all by itself, I don’t know what is!
Miles Teller plays the lead in the picture and takes him from a whelp of a young man with raw talent, to a position where he’s able to go toe-to-toe with Fletcher. Another actor played Neimann in the short, opposite Simmons, but Teller had always been first choice for the part; scheduling conflicts meant he wasn’t available. I hadn’t been familiar with his work prior to Whiplash, but a scan of IMDB reveals a slew of teen coming-of-age projects and that’s probably how Chazelle and his producers made the connection. He’s good in the part of Neimann, too, maintaining the character’s transformative arc with conviction.
But while Neimann is in every scene and it’s his journey we’re following, make no mistake; this is J. K. Simmons’ movie. Chazelle wrote the part of Fletcher around his memories of a band leader, in whose outfit he once played drums as a student. Except, that he amplified the bullying to almost comic proportions. And Simmons responds in-kind, taking Fletcher on as a larger-than-life caricature.
Neimann might be the one to bleed in the picture, but it’s Fletcher who pushed him there. When we first see him, he’s trying to put Neimann off-balance; to assert his dominance over this freshman. He’s looking for ‘character’ in the young man; something he can shape and mould, as if he’s a sculptor and Neimann is little more than his clay…
By the time Neimann gets to sit-in on a rehearsal of Fletcher’s ‘Studio Band’ (a jazz band comprised of Shaffer’s best players), things have moved-on for him. Just being picked-out by Fletcher, has boosted his confidence, to the point where he asks-out Nicole, a cashier at his local arthouse cinema. It’s showing Rififi – surely no coincidence, as Jules Dassin relished the procedural repetition of men-at-work, under stress. This is Chazelle giving a nod to those who’ve been before. He’s also there for a ‘date night’ with his Dad (Paul Reiser; a great comic actor of whom we don’t see enough) and it’s a touching grace note. The Hero is about to be tested – but he hasn’t forgotten family. Not yet.
But a great teacher will build you up, before knocking you right back down and that’s just what Fletcher does: first, to a trombone player, who can’t tell whether he’s playing out-of-tune (which in Fletcher’s opinion, is a worse crime than knowingly playing out-of-tune).
Then it’s Neimann’s turn to take the drum stool and play along. It’s not long before Fletcher is berating him over his tempo; alternately calling him out as either ‘dragging’ or going too fast. Whether he actually is, or is not, is irrelevant: it’s just one more way for Fletcher to mess with his head. As he sees it, he’s boosted him by picking Neimann in the first place: a First Year student among all these Final Year players. Now comes the beating down.
This scene formed the meat of the initial short film and I love its economy; Chazelle’s writing all clicks for me: right from the moment Fletcher enters, bristling with animalistic threat. Everyone stops their banter and stands to attention; staring at the floor as he walks in, bang-on Nine o’clock. In his black tee-shirt showcasing a Spartan frame and with a bald head that ripples and flexes under the lights, Fletcher is someone Who Has Their Shit Together and woe-betide anyone who’s going to sabotage ‘his’ band.
When Fletcher really lays into Neimann, Chazelle uses a tight zoom on both players, putting us right in their faces. Watching Neimann passively soak-up Fletcher’s verbal assault, reminded me of R. Lee Ermey’s turn as the Drill Sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987): only worse…Neimann just sits there, punch-drunk from the verbal assault, until emotion gets the better of him and a single tear rolls down a cheek; a further sign of weakness latched onto by Fletcher: ‘Are you one of those single tear people? Do I look like a double fucking rainbow?’ If we were any doubt before, that we were now in Big Boy’s School…
Which reminds me: the only female character in the entire film, is that of Nicole. Are we therefore to believe that Chazelle couldn’t hire any actresses for the film? Or that he didn’t write any other parts for women because he felt, consciously or not, that none would survive under Fletcher’s regime? Her role in the script – as someone lacking drive and motivation, or even a plan – is to be a constant ‘average’ against which Neimann can measure himself. Maybe that’s the answer, but I’d love to know. I suppose Chazelle could’ve made Neimann a girl, but wouldn’t that have given her just another obstacle to overcome? There is a movie to be made about the struggle female musicians have, to win recognition within the Jazz world as anything other than singers and, maybe, elsewhere in Chazelle’s version of the Shaffer Conservatory, he imagines there are girls just as dedicated, just as talented. We just don’t get to see them; maybe they were all down the road, filming Black Swan (2010)…
I digress. Neimann’s reaction to such abuse, is not to quit as many might’ve done, but to double-down on his practice, then break-up with Nicole (in a bittersweet exchange in a café, in which he lists a strong of logical reasons for them to break-up and she basically calls him an arsehole: which he is) and listen compulsively to CDs of Buddy Rich and the like, in the hope their genius might transfer via musical osmosis. Watching this entire sequence, I kept thinking that I was actually watching the Kryptonite version of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), in which a lazy slacker with a modicum of talent, is consumed by his own inertia… The highpoint of this sequence for me, is when he throws-out his mattress: for a student to do that, shows commitment, given the other distractions open to a Freshman 😉
And, boy, does he play – acquiring an impressive collection of bloody callouses, that he treats with Elastoplast and ice-water baths, in an effort at breaking-through to a higher level of performance – of ‘flow’ – where his playing becomes hard-wired in his brain and nothing else matters. Why? Because Fletcher has pushed the right buttons and has angered him to action. Seen another way, he’s inspired him, but Neimann can’t see that. Not yet.
The first big test, is the ‘Overbrook Jazz Competition’ in which the Band are competing. Through an error, Neimann misplaces the core drummer’s folder of ‘patterns’ (the drummer’s musical notations), which leaves the guy unable to play, having not committed them to memory. In classic ‘understudy-come-good’ fashion, Neimann steps into the breach and plays the Band’s two pieces flawlessly, much to Fletcher’s relief. The result? They win the competition and Neimann advances up the ladder.
His confidence returns, but rather than contact Nicole, his altered state of mind is revealed at a family dinner with his Aunt, Uncle and cousins. After hearing one brag about his achievements as a ‘potential Yale scholar’ and the other, boasting about having been picked for a football team, Neimann lays into the latter, by commenting acidly, that he’s only talking about a team ‘in the Third division’. This, after he’s explained how big a deal it is to be playing as a ‘core’ member of the Band. But no-one cares. So wrapped up in his own world has Neimann become, that he can’t understand why they’re not praising him with equal, if not higher praise. It’s down to his Uncle to ask: “Do you have any friends, Andy?” To which he replies: “I used to, but I couldn’t see the point.”
Such is his new-found drive and arrogance, that Neimann has forgotten that to be a great musician, he needs to be a team-player first and foremost. Drumming provides rhythmic accompaniment, but it’s not a lead instrument. In his zeal to prove himself, he’s forgotten that along the way: and his Dad, first and foremost, sees it.
Fletcher isn’t done messing with his head, either and brings-in his old classmate from Year # One, as a possible replacement: and THIS is the brutal regime he wants to flourish under?
The Third Act has Neimann expelled from Shaffer as a result of giving testimony about Fletcher to an enquiry, following the suicide of a past student. So disillusioned is he, that he throws-out his CDs, packs-away his kit and even walks past a poster advertising a jazz competition. Yet one night, he stumbles off the street into a small basement club, in which a small jazz outfit is accompanying Fletcher on piano. What follows, is a pulse-wrenching race-to-conclusion that’s as electrifying as it is predictable; as numbing as it is vital. Neimann is the apprentice no-more and a smile is all he’ll get for his pains: but by God, does he look satisfied…
A quick word on other high-points in the film: the work of DP Sharone Meir, who photographed the interiors with a burnished hue, as if glowing from the sheer energy & commitment expended there every day; an aura in direct contrast to the harsh palette seen elsewhere. Through such a device, Meir (and Chazelle) make the practice room, the concert hall and even the club, the cosiest places in the film. Compared to the other locations in Neimann’s life, they’re the most homely – and where he feels most at home.
Though they’re mostly without dialogue, the other band members played with convincing gusto and attack. The film’s sound-mix was pretty special, too, giving a sense of the immediacy of live performance, which sounds great even through a home cinema set-up. There’s real presence in the soundscape.
Problems? I’ve already mentioned the lack of female characters, but a little research has also thrown-up dissatisfaction from some quarters online, that the movie misrepresents both the spirit of ‘Jazz’ as much as the often genial atmosphere at such music colleges. I would of course agree, even though I’m no musician and have a tin-ear when it comes to Jazz: but they’re missing the point. I’ve already mentioned Black Swan and I, Tonya and, I daresay, if I were to do some digging around those movies I’d find people complaining that they misrepresented ballet or figure-skating! The environment in which the Hero / Heroine moves is almost irrelevant, compared to their own internal journey of self-realisation. It’s the wrapper, if you will and while that might change, the sweets within stay constant – and we keep coming back for more.
It also goes without saying, that if Fletcher was a real teacher, he’d have been fired and/or prosecuted years before Neimann ever got to the Shaffer, but this is a film about one young man’s trial by fire. He has to face-off against an ogre, else the drama won’t have as much potent threat. It’s a movie, not a documentary…
I came away from Whiplash exhausted. Exhilarated. Damien Chazelle announced himself as a major talent with this film and it demonstrates once again, as if the lesson needed repeating, that if you pursue your goal with sufficient self-belief, for long enough, then you might get somewhere; especially if you’ve got the talent to back it up and a teacher / mentor who can bring it out of you: and, brother, do we all need one of them from time-to-time!
According to author Malcolm Gladwell, it takes someone ‘ten thousand hours of practice’ to be world-class at something. If Whiplash proves anything, it’s that. But did I mention the blood?
If you deliberately sabotage my band, I’ll fuck you like a pig!