Damien Chazelle‘s 2014 film Whiplash is an exciting and confronting exploration of obsession, intimidation and excellence. Centered on the relationship between student Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and abusive band leader Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the film portrays the lengths an artist will go to prove their excellence.
From a Jazz fan’s point of view, I found the film extremely exciting as it was opening up the world of Jazz to a larger audience. I hadn’t actually heard Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” piece before, but it’s the perfect track for this film. The track is actually found on Don Ellis‘s 1973 album Soaring.
The sound of this track does have flurries of late 60’s Jazz moods, but it’s opening and rise are what make it special. I’d wager this played a big role in why Chazelle used it as such an important element of his film. I also enjoy the sense of tension the track has (which is evident is most of the music pieces used throughout the film).
There’s plenty of discussion of Traditional Jazz and Bebop era Jazz musicians in the film. The infamous Jo Jones/Charlie Parker story is recountered multiple times (however in truth, Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet, not at his head). Louis Armstrong and Buddy Rich are also mentioned at various times.
One of the big takeaways this film gave me, was a whole new appreciation of Jazz drumming. Since seeing the film, I’ve been consuming work by Rich, Jones and just about any other Jazz drummer I could. I’ve always been more interested in the horns/brass section of Jazz, and I’m glad I’ve been able to learn a little more.
If you’ve seen the film, I don’t need to sing it’s praises. The editing, cinematography and performances are incredible. As a friend said to me recently, the film is just so “tight”. It does what it needs to do quickly and does it well. The central theme of the film is what gets me. Andrew and Fletcher have a toxic and abusive relationship that eventually leads to them…making incredible art.
This was what threw me about this film. Fletcher is the antagonist, the badguy and he’s played so well we hate him. But at the end, his method works. Now, we don’t know what becomes of Andrew after the film (nothing good, according to Chazelle). But in that moment they create something pure, tremendous and near-perfect. Which is the closest any artist is going to get.
As we live in an age where the message needs to be continually uplifting, positive and self gratifying, I loved that Whiplash was telling me that sometimes awful people create beautiful art – even as they harm people to do it.
From a Jazz fan’s perspective, I can only hope this inspired people who don’t normally listen to Jazz to give it a try. Or hell, even pick up a pair of drum sticks. Whilst the film explores the pursuit of excellence, it presents music in a unique, interesting and best of all –interesting way.
Wade K. Savage
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