When I first saw Whiplash back in Spetember at the Deauville American Film Festival, more than a thousand people leapt to their feet in rapturous applause as the end credits were rolling. As I was pushing through the rapturous crowd on the way to see writer-director Damien Chazelle and star Miles Teller talk about their work during a press conference, the adrenaline was still pumping through my veins. Whiplash is the kind of film that grabs the audience from the opening scene, builds up to a relentless crescendo and doesn't let go until the very end. I didn't even have the time to remember that I don't even really like jazz that much.
How do you get the best out of a young talent? For Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an experienced instructor at the prestigious music school Shaffer, the answer is clear: you push their musical and mental abilities to the absolute limit. Failure is not an option and mercy a mere sign of weakness. He is constantly playing mind games and launches personal insults with the precision of a sniper at his terrified students. One of these pupils is an ambitious young drummer called Andrew (Teller) who is quickly rising through the ranks. The ascension to the top is anything but smooth though. His wild ambition and considerable ego lead to perpetual clashes between student and mentor. Fletcher and Andrew engage in a psychological battle of epic proportions while essentially pursuing the same goal: turning the latter into one of the best jazz drummers in the business. Andrew literally batters his drum-set until he bleeds; everything else falls by the wayside. Family, friends and girlfriend are mere distractions; speed-bumps on the road to greatness.
We ask ourselves two philosophical questions as we are watching those two strong personalities land one mental blow after another: 1. Are Fletcher's cruel methods the right (and/or the only) way to the top in a creative field like music? 2. Is it worth the sacrifice? - Whiplash doesn't really provide answers, but gives us the chance to make up our own minds. Some people are only able to perform and learn to the best of their abilities in situations of extreme pressure, but others crumble under the weight of emotional bullying. It's a situation that is familiar to most of us, be it from music, the classroom or a football pitch.
Darren Aronofsky's brilliant 2010 film Black Swan would meanwhile make for a fascinating companion piece to Whiplash. Both films are about complete dedication to creativity and art at any price, but there are fundamental differences in their philosophies. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman's ballerina struggles to let go. In order to master the dual role of the black and the white swan, she needs to completely surrender to the music. The art controls the artist. Whiplash inverses this relationship. It's all about being in command of the rhythm and the tempo. Technique is the crucial term: Are you rushing or are you dragging? As a consequence, Whiplash is a more disciplined, rigid piece of cinema. Aronofsky let his imagination run wild in fantastical dream sequences and moments of pure horror. Chazelle on the other hand is at his best when he keeps his feet on the ground. The tension comes out of the simplicity of the situation. Some scenes feel a bit artificial and contrived (particularly those involving Andrew's girlfriend), but the level-headedness of his direction is mostly maintained.
Everyone is rightly talking about the performances (Simmons and Teller are both at their very best), but it is the editing that truly makes Whiplash. At the press conference, Damien Chazelle, only 29 (!), talked in fluent French about his own background as a jazz drummer. He may not have been good enough to become a professional, but the experience clearly gave him a sense for this music and its rhythm, which he cleverly translates to cinema. After trimming the film from nearly three hours to 107 minutes, there is very little superfluous material. It is a bit rough around the edges at times, but Chazelle find his tempo and hits most of the right notes (the others are drowned out by sheer tension and intensity). Whiplash doesn't quite match the artful near-perfection of Black Swan, but it is a gripping cinematic experience. The standing ovation at Deauville wasn't the first or the last this film will deservedly receive and I wouldn't bet against J.K. Simmons winning a small, shiny bald man come March.