Director Damien Chazelle's new release, Whiplash, is the most high-strung and tension-packed movie of the season. The film's scenes are almost exclusively between J.K. Simmons, the bandleader at a prestigious music school, and Miles Teller, the protégé who hopes to become a legend under the guidance of his crazy master. They live in a realm where the only thing that matters is music--any side step from perfection is the gravest offense.
It reminds me of the way Francis Ford Coppola talks about wine making: At the highest levels of production, you do tons of work just to improve the quality a little bit. You pay extra to make sure there are no leaves or twigs mixed in with the picked grapes. That tweak will make the wine a tiny bit better, but at those high quality levels, a tiny bit means a lot. In the similar world of jazz perfectionists, the tiniest bit of improvement also means a lot, even if it takes practicing all night until your hands are bloody.
I have a few grievances before I can fully start praising the film. First of all, what these guys are doing spending all their time worrying about jazz? They mention that jazz is dying, acknowledge that their field is a lost art, but the student still has aspirations of being the next Bird. The teacher claims that jazz is dying because we live in a soft, cushy culture where everyone is patted on the back for being mediocre, creating a generation of bad players. Although I'm all for hard work--especially in creative fields--I don't think jazz is dying because of a lack of effort. It has more to do with changing trends.
There is the amazing scene where the student calls off a budding relationship with a girl because he can foresee that it will get in the way with his devotion to music. But it's not like he's even working toward anything that will be appreciated by more than a select group of aficionados. That being said, his speech to the girl is haunting, for anyone who has tried to pursue something with all his or her energy and time and will. The way to greatness is often lonely. But in the film, watching a character so young forestall a relationship that he needs so badly is a portrait of heartbreaking masochism.
I'm also confused by the message of the film. The teacher is a proponent of unrepentant bludgeoning as a way to separate the weak from the talented. He spends the whole film torturing his students into playing correctly, pitting them against each other in order to increase their efforts through competition. This is a great set-up, but I thought we were supposed to see this behavior as harmful, and the teacher as the villain. In the end, the teacher has planned the demise of his former student by having him publicly perform something he doesn't know how to play. It seems that maybe he has won the battle of wills--only to find that his former student is up to the challenge, and he proves as strong as the teacher.
What are we meant to take from this? That unrelenting, brutal tutelage is the way to greatness? The characters seem to think so. The weird, fascinating, and sadomasochistic relationship turns to one of sweaty bonding, and conspiratorial nods after the explosively climactic performance. What is the message as they stare at each other in ecstatic mutual recognition?
Those questions aside, the film's performances are amazing. J.K. Simmons plays the teacher like a demon who seems to show a soft side every once in a while, only to pull way the mask and reveal that he was pure devil all along. He is as hard, impenetrable, and polished as his shiny, shaved head. There isn't a moment lost in Simmons's performance. Every move is honed and precise, though still as electric as if it were improvised. Miles Teller is great as the student who isn't exactly cool, but is exciting through his devotion to his art. It's always interesting to watch a person obsessed--especially when that obsession is artistic.
The cinematography and editing are in a class of their own. The framing and rhythm of the images are in tight relation to the sounds, pulling us even deeper into the world of the characters.
The movie works for many reasons, but it's the music that brings it together into a tightly wound package. The characters infuse the music scenes with conflict, they give them drama and direction. In turn, the music gives the film a visceral feeling of rising tension.
The adage may say that practice is the only way to Carnegie Hall, but as a teacher myself I question the drum teacher's methods. Maybe I don't know how music works, and I can acknowledge the benefits of being pushed to my creative limit. But I also know that creativity is often aided by nurturing environments, not brutally competitive ones. I would say that the movie understands this, except for the gnashing satisfaction on the characters' faces at the end, after the teacher has pounded his students into mush. Regardless, the experience of this film is nothing but greatness. Whiplash is kinetic storytelling at its best.