If you haven’t seen Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash yet, the most simplistic way to summarise it is the story of a young and ambitious drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), in his first year at a prestigious New York conservatory who relentlessly yearns for the approval of an intimidating bandleader.
Alternatively, Whiplash is – as Executive Producer Jason Reitman described it – “Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard”.
Describe it however you want, this film is a must-see for music lovers.
I’m no jazz aficionado, but I appreciate it as an art form and I appreciate it as a style of music. I’m captivated by the narrative that explains jazz music as a music “that welcomes you if you come to it” as Wynton Marsalis says.
Similar to baseball, jazz is a genuinely American pastime. And like baseball, the history of jazz music is inextricibly entwined in the country’s dark history of slavery and institutionalised racial oppression.
It is a music born of a society that liked to say aloud all were created equal but silently enshrined a way of life that proscribed some to be much less equal than others.
It rose above the south’s stultifying Jim Crow laws to become a fledgling post-Civil War nation’s babysitter at the dawn of the 20th century, before becoming its spirit guide – carrying a people through the roaring twenties, the despair of the depression years, the anger of Pearl Harbour and then the unbridled optimism that followed the end of horrifc wars in Europe and the Pacific.
Jazz is the music of hope, tragedy and liberation. It is all-consuming and becomes an obsession for those who try to master it like the surfer who searches the world for the perfect wave.
The trials and tribulations of jazz luminaries like Buddy Bolden, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and most notably, Charlie Parker, are at the heart of what Whiplash explores and asks; are you only entitled to be considered ‘great’ when there’s suffering, rejection and heartache in your journey? Are you only worthy of being considered ‘capable’ after some right-of-passage steeped in bullying, malevolence, Machiavellian manipulation and the destruction of someone’s spirit?
“I push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity…. There are no two words in the english language more harmful than ‘good job’… “(J.K Simmons as Terence Fletcher, Whiplash (2014))
I enjoyed Whiplash immensely. It is well-written, brilliantly photographed (any movie still shot on 35mm in this digital age is a winner in my book) and the direction is first-rate.
The music production is also brilliant, expertly capturing the nuances of the pieces the movie focuses on; the eponymous Whiplash and Duke Ellington’s legendary Caravan to showcase the challenges playing these songs presents to performers.
If you don’t ‘get’ Jazz, – or at least appreciate the history and the stories behind luminaries of the art form such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, then Whiplash is definitely Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard.
Conversely, if you have an appreciation for the litany of stories across all walks of life in sport, faith, business and the performing arts where people have hit rock bottom in order to discover their ‘greatness’ then there’s plenty for you to sink your teeth into here.
If J.K Simmons doesn’t AT LEAST receive a Best Actor nomination in January for Whiplash, then the Academy Awards are dead to me. His portrayal of the malevolent band leader – Terence Fletcher – is on par with Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lector, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery, or Michael Parks’ chilling Abin Cooper in Red State, while Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman – who idolises the big band drumming powerhouses of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich – is great.
Whiplash is definitely not a family movie and the language used in the film might put some off, but in exploring the lengths musicians will go to in order to gain acceptance and approval from their peers, it’s an astounding and thought-provoking piece of cinema and entertainment.