SOME are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. In Jazz, you have a cymbal thrown at you.
So goes the story of Charlie Parker, who at 16 years old lost track of chord changes while playing the saxophone, evoking the anger of band member Jo Jones who threw a cymbal at his feet.
The incident, which took place in 1937 at Kansas City’s Reno Club, is said to have helped inspire Parker – known in Jazz circles as ‘The Bird’ – to musical greatness.
It is a story that pervades Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating, tense and relentless teacher-student film Whiplash (2014).
For Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a drummer starting at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, his cymbal comes in the shape of Jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (a marvellous JK Simmons).
After discovering Andrew practising alone one night, Fletcher plucks the youngster from the second-string class and thrusts him into the high-pressure atmosphere of his lead group.
‘You are here for a reason’, Fletcher reminds Andrew before reducing him to tears in his first session.
Fletcher is a brutal bully. His methods, akin to those employed by iconic Drill Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), see him blend a creative barrage of foul-mouthed insults with fierce intensity and machismo aggression. It is a potent mix to weed out the fragile and test even the most dedicated musician’s resolve.
Andrew is left trying to survive Fletcher’s mind games and his relentless demand for perfection. He avoids dorm parties, retreats to his room to listen to Buddy Rich CDs and practices until his hands are gory and raw. A poster on his wall reads: ‘If you don’t have ability you end up playing in a rock band’. It reflects his desire to reach the pinnacle in jazz drumming.
As Fletcher’s influence takes grip, Andrew adopts a tunnel vision approach that places him in conflict with the few people he is close to. They include his dad (played by Paul Reiser), a failed writer and high school teacher who reveals himself as a pushover. His love interest (Melissa Benoist) is not clear where her future lies as Andrew detaches himself from her clutches.
In Fletcher’s world, there is no room for mediocrity or complacency. He believes there are no two more harmful words in the English language than ‘good job’. His objective is clear: he wants to uncover and inspire excellence – find the next Charlie Parker, even if it means plenty of casualties along the way.
With the help of editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir, Chazelle expertly composes a series of thrilling scenes between Andrew and Fletcher.
By using unsteady cameras (handheld, presumably) he brings an unsettling energy to their verbal and physical interactions. He also uses these camera movements to give the jazz music, played either in a tight rehearsal room or in front of dimly lit audiences, both vibrancy and fluidity.
Sharp cuts and zooms are added in as jolting – or whiplashing – exclamation points.
Just as memorable are the close ups of the drum kits which reveal beads of sweat and blood. If you did not think jazz was serious, you will after watching Whiplash.
Another part of this jazz aesthetic is the use of warm yellowy-orange colours. In important moments of Whiplash, they light up Andrew and Fletcher’s faces, making it hard to tell whether they are in jazz utopia or – more sinisterly – in hell.
This review would not be complete without acknowledgment of a career-defining performance from JK Simmonds. He turns a skinny, bald jazz instructor with a tight t-shirt tucked-in around his waist into an intimidating, unpredictable and nightmarish figure. He plays off Teller’s doughy millennial softness brilliantly.
Chazelle’s La La Land is a bouncy ode to old-school Hollywood, with a poignant message about the dying art of jazz fed through Ryan Gosling’s character. In contrast, Whiplash is an in-your-face reminder of the power of jazz.
It is visceral, impactful and provocative.
If you have not seen it, I urge you to. If you have, watch it again (this was my sixth time). It will whip you into a frenzy of love for cinema.
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Whiplash – 5/5
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Scr: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Resier, Melissa Benoist
DOP: Sharone Meir
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Editing: Tom Cross
Also read: Arrival (Film Review)