Whiplash, the award-winning movie that’s being released on DVD today, is at its most basic, a movie about something most people don’t care about: jazz drumming. But the brilliance in the movie, which simply has to be seen twice (then owned) is not being weighed down and beaten until dead by the stoic technicality that occasionally plagues the Jazz conversation. Instead, this is a movie about dedication; the drive, at almost any cost, to be great — with no shortcuts, a borderline-psychotic but tonally brilliant instructor, and the painfully less-than-no-guarantees world of trying not only to make Jazz a career, but to be great. No, “one of the greats.”
The movie, out on DVD this week, took Sundance Film Festival by storm last year, winning both grand jury and audience awards and sparked a wave of well-deserved buzz that’s continued throughout the year.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a young man focusing his entire being on drumming at a prestigious New York City music academy, spending his days worshipping the very drumheads that notorious jazz great Buddy Rich beat on, with a focus and drive to follow the masters’ footprints at any cost. After he precariously earns a coveted studio band position under the leadership of Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons, he’s quickly pushed to the razor’s edge of his abilities, forcing him into an anxiety-ridden existence of practice, terror, uncertainty, and ego.
Simmons steals the show, taking the dictatorial position of a man who accepts nothing less than a little past perfection, and when he doesn’t get it, he expresses his displeasure with thrown objects and unrelenting torment. Absolutely unrestrained like the crazy older brother of TV’s Dr. House, he plays a man with a radical mission. Teller paints an impeccable character, a bold but quiet loner who’s entire existence is for the lofty goal of being nothing less than the very best, willing to work when and where others won’t, eating, sleeping, and breathing the dream.
With something as touchy as both Jazz and percussion, let alone Jazz percussion, a movie could easily fall prey to a stiff or uncomfortable flow, but Whiplash is always entertaining, always exciting. The jazz details are there; the standards, the B-Flats, the Lincoln Center… but they’re never overbearing, boring or too technical for the audience to grasp. Fantastic camera angles in well-crafted scenes give a warm, lustrous, mahogany-and-brass feeling to the movie that achieves the near-impossible: getting people who may or may not care about jazz, (or have the unfortunate affliction of not liking it) to love the music in front of them. Chazelle accomplished this novel feat by making the movie about passion and drive in one of the toughest settings to be passionate and driven, creating a powerful tension throughout.
The movie could well have been modeled after the most raw, legendary performances of jazz songs like the ones Neiman religiously listens to. It builds on tension throughout, ebbing and flowing with high and low notes, giving the audience a range of emotions and building to a jaw dropping, jazz-fueled finale. If movies were Jazz, this could well become a classic like “Caravan”.
At the end of the day, anyone, any musician, let alone a filmmaker, that can make a several minute jazz drumming solo keep the entire audience gleefully titillated, holding their breath and white-knuckle grasping on the edge of their seats like no on-screen car chase has done since Ronin is worthy of enough trust to invest in. I watched this movie two times at two theaters and in both, when the credits rolled, much of the audience literally stood up and clapped like they’d enjoyed a front row seat for the making of a jazz titan.