WHIPLASH directed by Damien Chazelle (USA, 2014)
“I wanna hear Caravan with a drum solo” is a line, in the form of an aside, on The Mothers Of Invention’s ‘You’re Probably Wondering Why We’re Here’.
Frank Zappa’s wish is granted in spades for the finale of Whiplash although I doubt he ever envisaged it would look or sound anything like this.
The on-screen performance of this Jazz standard, made famous by Duke Ellington, is dominated by an extended solo by ambitious student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who is determined to prove a point to his demanding music instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons).
The solo seems to go on forever and we don’t get to see or hear the audience reaction; it wouldn’t surprise me if they had already gone home and left him to it!
The playing is so manic that it brings to mind the depiction of pianist David Heffcott’s mental breakdown during Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto in the movie Shine. The obsessive, and bloody, practice sessions leading up to this climax are otherwise reminiscent of boxing movies like Raging Bull or Rocky.
Whiplash is essentially a two-hander centering on an intense student-teacher relationship. J. K. Simmons is brutally convincing as the uncompromising professor who strives for perfection by striking the fear of God into his pupils. He is physically violent, verbally abusive and uses ruthless psychological pressure to get his way. As Richard Brody correctly notes in his review in The New Yorker :“the movie isn’t really “about” jazz; but ‘about’ the abuse of power”.
Like Brody, I wondered how accurate this film is in its portrayal of musicians striving to reach the top of their profession. British saxophonist Evan Parker once said that what sets top Jazz players apart from the competition is their spontaneity and social interaction. The student in Damien Chazelle’s movie, partly based on his own experiences, has neither of these qualities. He is so wrapped up in getting the details correct that he seems oblivious to the other members of the band and the audience.
I get the point that dedication is essential to perfect your craft but there is something so masochistic about the way Andrew Neiman practices, pushing himself to breaking point as he strives to be the new Buddy Rich.
I’m sure this would ensure he reaches a high level of technical ability but the ‘greats’ of any musical genre are not merely accomplished players. For example, the ex-Procal Harum guitarist Robin Trower modelled himself on Jimi Hendrix but despite his highly proficient playing he had nothing of the charisma or soul of his hero.
The brilliant editing and fine acting in this claustrophobic psycho-drama make it highly watchable but I sincerely hope that budding musicians or fledgling teachers will not use it as a training film.