Whip Your Soul Back & Forth
It’s exciting when a film can satisfyingly succeed in more than one aspect: the actors, the story, the music and even the intellectual inquiry. “Whiplash” triumphs on all those aspects across the board.
The debut of writer-director Damien Chazelle is a psychological thriller about the insanity of musicians and the pursuit of artistic excellence. Throughout the film the viewer is thrown into the competitive world of jazz music, specifically a Manhattan music university’s Studio Combo Band. Chazelle’s vision of these musicians is that they must strive for prestige to remind everyone else that it is not satisfying to be complacent with less than awe-inspiring art.
One of the best surprises of this film was the soundtrack. When I wasn’t observing the sheer intensity of J.K. Simmons or Miles Teller’s quiet and ferocious nature, I was truly amazed at the music the movie showcased. “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” two focal jazz pieces, served as exceptional driving forces for the action and understanding of the movie.
J.K. Simmons plays the terrifying totalitarian conductor of the jazz combo, Terence Fletcher, who believes that it is fundamentally necessary to weed out the weak and push the greatest talent to their breaking point. He forces them to exceed expectations through fear and anger, using lessons of emotional torment, humiliation and even threatening personal safety.
Simmons is able to perfectly portray the sadistic Fletcher, without giving into over-the-top dramatics. Never have I been so sincerely enthralled by a man who was, essentially, a shape-shifter; Fletcher flawlessly leads two lives in both his jazz ensemble and in the rest of the world, and Simmons makes sure you believe it from the first “whoopsie-daisy” to the last profane insult.
Fletcher’s latest victim is Andrew (Miles Teller), who at first glance is just another young, impressionable boy who has been subject to an unsatisfying life and has a deep-seated desire to be one of the “greats.” Once he’s exposed to Fletcher’s style of patriarchal “encouragement,” that desire becomes the only focus in his life.
Teller excellently shows how the overzealous Andrew quietly yet ferociously battles against Fletcher by obsessively rehearsing and perfecting his drumming. He expertly exposes Andrew’s raw, borderline psychotic drive to the audience, and we cringe as he devotes his literal blood, sweat and tears to prove to Fletcher (and himself) that he is capable of transcending his ability.
Andrew’s painful practice gives the viewer a sense that the blood he constantly spills over his drum set is, in a way, tainting the true nature of his art while his ego and talent grow.
It implies that Chazelle is attempting to examine the impressive determination and talent of young artists, while simultaneously questioning the validity of its intensity. His script tries to unflinchingly delve into the psyche of this world, but becomes restrained and predictable in the story arc.
“Whiplash” keeps the viewer clenching the armrest because of Simmons’ and Teller’s all-too-familiar battle of egos. The actors are able to transcend the familiar dynamic, however, and keep the viewer invested in their war.
Not even when they have finally matched each other in the penultimate song does the viewer feel at ease; there is a sense that nothing will ever be good enough, and that the torture must continue indefinitely.
RECOMMENDED: One may cringe at the profanity that comes out of Simmons’ mouth or Teller’s truly insane determination, but the movie conveys with impeccable ease.