Darkness… Frustration…Fear. If you have seen Damien Chazelle’s cringe-worthy yet unique cinematic endeavor “Whiplash,” these words represent some of the main sensations you experience through the screen. Though many other sounds, techniques, and visuals are used during this film, these are some of the key themes that come together in a terrifying assault emphasizing the characters and the question the viewers are forced to ask.
“Whiplash” opens as many previously exceptional films have opened; it lacks the pointless opening credits and jumps right in. Blackness fills the screen, and all that is heard is the gentle tapping of a stick to a drum. As the beat becomes faster, faster, faster, one can only realize later that it foreshadows the intensity to come, and it already begins its uncomfortable ooze into the viewer. You can’t help but squirm in your seat as the beat begins to race like the heartbeat of someone who has just run a marathon.
But then it stops. The blackness disappears instantly and a long, dark hallway (of what is later revealed to be the best music college in the country) is shown. We are introduced to the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller), who is in solitude and seemingly straining himself as he practices a song on the drums with acute energy; already we get the feeling that this character wants to stand out, to be “one of the greats.” Almost immediately following, we are introduced to another character, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)–the head of the most prestigious jazz band in the entire college–who seems to appear out of the shadows, already critical of Andrew’s playing.
Andrew is quickly selected by Fletcher to join his band. Happily willing at first, Andrew begins to witness the brutal emotional and physical harshness of Fletcher’s training. It isn’t long before Andrew becomes a victim himself, as seen in an early scene where Fletcher has just thrown a large object at Andrew’s head. Looking down, Andrew holds back tears as Fletcher bellows into his face, remarking how Andrew’s father is a failed writer turned high school teacher and that his mother left when he was small–a detail shared with the teacher only minutes before.
Fletcher, in a petrifying performance by J.K Simmons, then asks Andrew if he’s upset. Andrew answers yes, but it isn’t enough. Andrew spends another minute or so shouting louder and louder, “I’m upset! I’m upset!” As his voice shakes and tears begin to stream down his cheeks in capitulation to Fletcher’s nasty slurs, he has no choice but to continue with Fletcher’s demand to match “his tempo,” which is nearly impossible.
The close, slow shots of blood and sweat, of the sticks smacking the drums, of the quickness and stillness of the cinematography all help send winces and clenches into its viewers. This is especially prevalent in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Andrew, after hours of competing against two other drummers, finally succeeds to match the absurdly expeditious drum beat of which Fletcher finds only the best could accomplish. But even then, one can sense Andrew’s subtle observation of Fletcher’s slight dissatisfaction – exactly what Andrew needs to annihilate.
With fear out of the way, darkness and frustration really begin to take their toll as the film passes its middle. We have learned, through certain events, decisions, (Andrew at one point crawls out of a crushed car after being hit by a truck, and runs to a concert he must perform in), and Fletcher’s crazed methods, that obsession has completely taken over Andrew’s life. His aspiration to become the best has infected his mind, forcing him to go past the limits that any normal person would screech to a stop at. He plays until he is nearly unconscious, bleeding and sweating uncontrollably. We watch as Andrew stops at nothing to prove himself as almost superhuman, biting his lips, cringing as he vibrates his arm until the drum beat is faster than anything you’ve heard.
When the film comes to its wildly explosive ending, all of the pain, fear, and frustration meld into one as Andrew plays his heart out in an unplanned, but gratifying solo. The editing goes beyond the normal cut and slice and instead works with the music, quickly jumping from shot to shot at the blow of a horn, the exciting screech of a trumpet–even the seemingly impossible match of Andrew’s rapid drum beats. And as he comes to a quiet pause during his stunning performance, only then does it seem that Fletcher’s definite expression of satisfaction has finally appeared, which is really when the film’s main question arises; a question that many struggling artists have or will ask themselves at one point: what does it take to become the best?