NORTHSIDE FILMS | WHIPLASH

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By Shane Kaluza

 

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a jazz drum student at an elite music academy, struggles to win the approval of the tyrannical conductor of the school’s intensely competitive concert band. J. K. Simmons has been much praised as Terence Fletcher, the conductor, and he is certainly impressive as the antagonistic presence at the core of Chazelle’s film. Fletcher is a near demonic figure, dominating Neiman’s life as the gatekeeper of an ideal of artistic greatness that is only to be achieved through suffering and extreme devotion. Relationships presenting the possibility of a more emotionally satisfying and generally more human existence, be it with his supportive father (Paul Reiser) or good-natured girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), are pushed to the edges of Neiman’s life and have a similarly minimal narrative presence.

 

Despite the enjoyable way Whiplash incorporates music and its performance, for the students at Schaffer Conservatory it appears a largely joyless pursuit, carried out (for Neiman at least) in an atmosphere of fierce competition and Spartan endurance. Fletcher’s interactions with his band are reminiscent of nothing so much as R. Lee Ermey’s merciless drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’. But where Ermey managed to dispense his imaginative abuse with the air of detachment of a professional whose job is crushing spirits, Simmons’s Fletcher seems all the more sadistic for the glints of humour, warmth and encouragement that punctuate his vicious attacks.

 

Fletcher is a near demonic figure, dominating Neiman’s life as the gatekeeper of an ideal of artistic greatness that is only to be achieved through suffering and extreme devotion.”

 

It is unsurprising to learn that Chazelle based the film on his own experience, for he clearly has a sympathetic accord with the subject, expressed in the virtuosic rhythm and focus of his direction. A metronymic precision drives the film’s narrative, which never drags or rushes, but moves steadily forward between controlled bursts of intensity. Also, while Fletcher and Neiman are far from admirable characters, ultimately the film is at least a partial and ambiguous celebration of the narrow ideal of artistic achievement and the particularly American cult of success it depicts. In this world, music is an exclusive field of competitive achievement, and any sense of the camaraderie and living culture of jazz recedes into a legendary past, while the high-culture product refined at Schaffer is consumed by a spectral audience of august patrons, as glimpsed beyond the haze of the footlights in the lead up to the film’s final set-piece scene.

 

Despite this high-cultural status, the kind of excellence Neiman pursues is most comparable to competitive spectator sport. In a telling scene Neiman, feeling his achievements have been under-appreciated at a dinner table conversation, derides a cousin or family friend for the low level of competition in which his highly praised football exploits have been accomplished. The parallel is appropriate, for in Chazelle’s precisely realised vision music is the arena for a spectacle of male competitiveness and aggression: a clash of egos and even bodies that becomes, at times, a blood sport.

 

 

Shane Kaluza is a writer who likes films and plays drums badly.

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