Rhythm and drive–that’s what makes music and that’s what makes films. This is also what makes Whiplash so spectacular. Music is not merely a supporting player to the narrative. It is an integral part of its DNA, coded into its very structure. It is the life force from where the images are born.
It is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), an ambitious and driven jazz drummer for whom music is everything. Driven by a single-minded obsession and pushed by the unrelenting Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the desire to be the best is all-consuming. The editing is fast and rhythmic, full of close ups showing Andrew’s intense focus as he pours in his blood, sweat and tears. The hits, both physical and emotional, are real. Teller did all his own playing, meaning the music is the only guide to the ebb and flow of the film. Director Damian Chazelle doesn’t have to worry about obscuring an imposter; he can follow where the music takes him.
If music is the life force of the film, Simmons is the heartbeat. Pulsing relentlessly, never letting up, always wanting more, he is electric on screen. Charming, charismatic and terrifying, he is larger than life. An unrelenting force of nature, he pushes his students to their breaking point, rivaling their passion with his own. His methods are cutthroat and abusive, but they parallel the relentless drive that Andrew displays for his art form. They are one and the same. Nothing is too great a price to pay for greatness.
There are a few missteps when the music is not there to lead the way. The girlfriend subplot falls a bit flat, feeling shoehorned into the film. While the relationship says some important things about the price of success, it just doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. The same effect could have been achieved more organically. Instead it pales in comparison to the vibrancy of the musical segments and loses the emotional punch it should have.
But when we return to the music, any hardships are forgotten. The pursuit of perfection is, as ever, endlessly seductive and impossible to achieve, but when music is the guide, Chazelle has achieved true cinematic greatness. The images created of musicians playing is the standard to which every film will now be held. As the rhythm of jazz becomes the rhythm of the blood, pumping through the veins, it becomes the master of everything.
Whiplash screened Monday, Sept. 8th at Ryerson and Tuesday Sept. 9th at TIFF Bell Lightbox.