For writer-director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), there was life before the Sundance Film Festival and life afterward. Despite writing a screenplay considered one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, a spot confirmed by the screenplay’s prominent place on the yearly Blacklist, financing was difficult to obtain. Eventually, Chazelle took the only alternative open to him: He made a 16-minute short, premiered it at Sundance (where it won an award), and based on the success of the short, obtained the funding necessary to make the feature-length version. It’s a narrative that while fascinating and compelling on its own, would mean little if the end result, Whiplash, failed on any number of aesthetic. That it doesn’t is a testament to Chazelle’s talents and skills as a filmmaker, buoyed by a clear, distinct vision of what he wanted to accomplish with his second feature-length film and executing on that vision.
A black screen, the sound of tentative drumming, a camera stealthily moving down a hallway, only stopping when it can’t move any further, finding the source of the drumming, a young, first-year conservatory student, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), practicing by himself until a figure emerges, seemingly sui generis, from the inky shadows, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a respected, if feared, teacher and the band leader/conductor of the school’s well-respected jazz group. That initial encounter sets the fraught, conflict-ridden tone for everything that follows: Andrew, dedicated, obsessive, and ambitious, always seeking the approval and respect of the teacher-mentor who willfully withholds that approval and respect, the better to manipulate, to “play” Andrew like an instrument, coaxing, cajoling, and otherwise extracting the pure, the perfect sound unmatched by few mortals, let alone a first-year student at a fictitious New York City conservatory.
It becomes a fierce, maybe even destructive battle of wills between teacher and student, not just blurring the lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in an unbalanced power relationship like a teacher-student one, but obliterating those lines completely, leaving only the music, the art, the search for perfection and with perfection, greatness and the glimmer of immortality (the work will endure even if we don’t). That search for greatness, Andrew in himself, Fletcher in Andrew, becomes the focal point for everything that follows in Whiplash, including Andrew’s initially close relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), a failed writer-turned-high-school-English teacher, and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a Fordham student, eventual romantic interest, and ultimately an obstacle — she promises stability, normality, and in Andrew’s eyes, mediocrity — to the singular, fanatical pursuit of perfection. That’s the price, the human price in failed or neglected relationships, that Andrew is more than willing to pay.
Seen another way, that price is something else, a sacrifice for art, but again it’s a sacrifice that Andrew, initially hesitant, but later completely sure of himself, feels repeatedly compelled to make. Of course, it’s a Romantic notion, borne out of an idealized conception held, sustained, and nurtured by poets and artists of the late 18th, early 19th century. If Whiplash is any indication, the Romantic idea of the suffering, sacrificing artist (or musician) is alive and well in the 21st century. So too is the idea that great art can only come through great physical, emotional, and mental exertions, that great art can only come when the artist has suffered sufficiently either self-imposed or externally imposed. The larger-than-life Fletcher, rarely sympathetic, often monstrous in his behavior toward Andrew and the other conservatory students, represents one possible axis or pole on a continuum.
Whether Chazelle advocates for Fletcher’s teaching methods is another matter. More likely, he’s just as fascinated by Fletcher and the open, unanswered question he represents that suggests artistic greatness and sadomasochistic behavior may not be opposite sides of the artistic coin, but actually complementary, maybe even necessary or essential. What can be said with certainty, however, has less to do with themes and subtext and everything to do with the skills and talents not only Chazelle brings to Whiplash, but everyone else too, including, of course, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons (both are nothing less than stellar). Credit also extends to Chazelle’s cinematographer, Sharone Meir, who lights both interiors and exteriors like ’70s-set urban dramas and crime-thrillers popularized by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Brian De Palma (among others).