Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ Just Might Be The Best Film of 2014

A musical, a sports movie and an inspirational-teacher film rolled into one, 'Whiplash' subverts the clichés of those genres to capture the visceral qualities of music, and obsession.

Recently at Junkee, Glenn Dunks argued that Kevin Smith’s Tusk might be this year’s worst film. Well, Whiplash might be this year’s best. It’s a musical, a sports movie and an ‘inspirational teacher’ movie rolled into one – and it subverts the clichés of all those genres.

Whiplash follows intense young drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who craves nothing less than being an all-time jazz great, as he faces off against Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the domineering big-band conservatory teacher who pushes Andrew to breaking point.

The title track, by Hank Levy, uses a 7/4 time signature. Since we’re most accustomed to the regularity of 4/4 time or the graceful swoop of 3/4 waltz time, seven beats to the bar sounds just a little unmoored. I know it’s corny to suggest that Chazelle, who is a drummer, has structured his second feature similarly in order to unsettle audience expectations — but, much as 7/4 time comes almost hypnotically into focus once you get a feel for it, Whiplash is an immersive film that demands to be felt.

Yet its moral complexities are still satisfying to ponder afterwards. Whiplash is smart and subtle about the distinctions between motivation and obsession; inspiration and hazing – the story supports many different readings, but never simplistic ones. I left the cinema feeling absolutely buzzed, and it’s stayed with me ever since. A jazz song will come on in a restaurant, or in the car, and I’ll get the feels all over again.

Violence And Savagery

‘Caravan’, a 1937 jazz standard by Juan Tizol, uses orientalist modal intervals and rhythms to evoke something ‘exotic’ and ‘savage’. It became a signature tune for Duke Ellington’s band, but it’s also a drummer’s showcase – and in Whiplash, it provides Andrew with both an electrifying moment of triumph and a dramatic, humiliating breakdown.

Drums are humankind’s most atavistic instrument, and the film treats their physicality as an untamed entity that unleashes something similarly ferocious in the player. Andrew practises until he’s drenched in sweat, and his bleeding hands drip all over the kit.

Better than any film I’ve ever seen, Whiplash captures music’s visceral qualities. The camerawork is exhilarating: closing in tight on fingers and faces, darting between instruments as they surface in an arrangement. Sheet music rustles; players’ condensed breath drips from their instruments and pools on the floor; they exchange wincing glances. If you’ve ever played in an ensemble, you’ll recognise it here.

During rehearsal, Fletcher breaks down his all-male big band like a drill sergeant, through a torrent of physical hazing and racist, sexist and homophobic abuse — leading the film to be glibly dubbed ‘Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard’. Fletcher argues to Andrew that in a culture that coddles mediocrity, true talent must be goaded, not nurtured: “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job’.”

But to say Whiplash is about bullying and trauma is to ignore both the subtlety of Fletcher’s grooming, and Andrew’s own inner motivations. With his shaved head and black muscle T-shirts, barking macho commands, JK Simmons gnaws the scenery. But it’s his character’s moments of friendliness, even vulnerability, that are the scariest – we can only guess at how deep Fletcher’s manipulation goes, or what inner forces drive him.

Teller, too, is excellent. Having also drummed as a teenager, he does most of his own playing here, but his combination of wariness and insolence suggests that Andrew’s fear of artistic mediocrity comes from a place of shame about his nebbishy single dad (Paul Reiser), a failed author who’s now a teacher, and who regards Andrew’s ambition with mystified horror.

As an alternative role model, Fletcher is attractive because he represents agency and dynamism, his harsh methods mirroring Andrew’s demands on himself. Perhaps the most confrontingly violent thing about Whiplash is the possibility that Fletcher has engineered every single one of Andrew’s triumphs – even those Andrew believes he’s earned on his own.

In The Groove: The Experience Of Flow

In several key scenes, Fletcher berates his musicians for their poor tuning and timing. He expects them to understand what’s wrong, but to be intuitively right.

The perfect musician is someone who has mastered the art of flow, that state of intense, focused concentration in which we lose self-consciousness and awareness of time, becoming completely at one with the task. Athletes call it ‘in the zone’. Martial artists call it ‘mushin’. Drummers call it ‘in the groove’.

Two years ago I read an incredible Boston Magazine feature about an elite classical percussionist striving to get into the Boston Symphony, one of the world’s top orchestras. He practises up to 20 hours a day, eats healthy power foods and even rehearses in his mind. His preparation is much like that of an elite athlete.

These high-pressure auditions are a test of flow: “If he squeezes his glockenspiel mallet too hard, choking the sound, or if he overthinks the dotted rhythm or fails to adjust to the BSO’s oddly scaled xylophone bars and misses a few notes, the whole thing will be over.”

Flow is positive, euphoric, even addictive. What if Andrew practises so obsessively, has no friends, takes family for granted, allows relationships to fizzle, and most of all lets Fletcher humiliate him, purely to chase that rush that comes only from completely nailing it onstage?

We’re implicated in his obsession, because Whiplash also seeks to evoke a flow state in the audience. Andrew’s playing is both stressful and satisfying to experience vicariously; I found myself tensing, compulsively tapping my foot to the beat, hissing in dismay when Andrew makes mistakes and feeling like I’d cornered on rails when he gets something right. Jazz is often stereotyped as ‘cool’ and intellectual, but its aim to share the experience of flow – especially in its freewheeling improvisation – reminds me of that iconic photo of 1950s hipsters absolutely losing their shit to saxophonist Big Jay McNeely.

Can a life spent solely in pursuit of flow possibly be truly rewarding? Cinema says yes. Movies ask us to find any personal sacrifice noble when it results in perfection, and to cheer along characters who obsessively chase a single, life-changing achievement, whether it’s winning the championship or passing the audition. Much like Ethan Hawke’s quixotic character in Gattaca, protagonists – and filmmakers – rarely keep any effort in reserve, or ask what comes next.

In the Boston Magazine feature, we encounter the flipside of this perfectionist impulse: the percussionist who created another musician’s big break by losing his nerve, losing his flow, and failing to make tenure. “It’s when we start to talk about the audition committee that he quickly loses his composure and heads to the bathroom. I hear him crying.”

One of Whiplash’s strengths is that it lets Andrew ponder if his sacrifice has been worthwhile, and if there’s life outside his ambitions. But where a lesser film would either reward his hard work with success or teach him humbling ‘lessons’, Whiplash ends on a thrilling yet ambivalent moment – I could revel in Andrew’s glory while genuinely fearing for his future. And it’s for us to decide if Fletcher is the best thing to happen to him, or the worst.

Whiplash is out now in Australian cinemas.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk