Whiplash: The best film of 2014
Alright, I know I’m a little behind the times here. But I just want to say for the record that Whiplash is hands down the best film of the year.
Anything less than a Best Picture win for the movie will be insufficient, but regardless of the whims and opinions of a stuffy, self-righteous, self-congratulatory and insular institution like The Academy, Whiplash deserves recognition as the best movie of 2014, and certainly one of the best movies about music ever made.
First and foremost, the acting in Whiplash is incredible, not just because J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller blow everything and anyone that stands in their way out of the water, but also because the characters and setting that director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle has written for them are as compelling and multi-faceted as the arrangements Simmons’ character Terence Fletcher has his studio ensemble play.
Good films show rather than tell. But it’s a whole other level for a movie like Whiplash to so effortlessly show you the depth of the characters behind each and every surface-level interaction they have with one another. The characters’ actions aren’t just genuine or earnest, they’re also demonstrative of the mess of personal history and outlook operating underneath the surface.
But all of the Oscar nominees have excellent actors portraying brilliant characters. What makes Whiplash unique is how perfectly it captures the emotional and tactile sensation of being a musician.
The sights and sounds of the film — the feel of snapping a snare tight against the head of a drum, the panning back and forth between the improviser and the band leader mutually conjuring up a piece that reacts to one another’s direction, the sucking of reeds, the snare hits aligning with brass attacks, the sensational terror of knowing you’re out of the groove, the frenetic energy of playing faster and better than you ever have, the sharp intake of breath on the upbeat of four — these are the visual and emotional and spiritual aspects of jazz that Whiplash conjures so faithfully and accurately and truly. Sure, 20-year-old jazz students don’t take extended drum solos at Lincoln Center or suffer physical abuse and gay epithets from their instructors, but if you’ve played, you know the exact experiences portrayed in the film. If you haven’t, you’re instantly transported into the mind and body of the inhabitants of the scene.
But Whiplash isn’t just a movie about music, a masturbatory series of Charlie Parker references made for musicians or jazz hepcats or whatever. It may draw you into the small subculture of cutthroat, intense jazz musicians, but it’s a movie that takes a small focal point (an 18-year-old drummer and his mentor) and uses it to dwell and reflect on Big Issues. Not tiresome Big Issues like “why isn’t such a fundamentally American genre of music culturally relevant any more,” but rather Big Issue stuff like love and greatness and the pursuit or fallacy of either.
Whiplash doesn’t give us an answer to whether such manic pursuit of greatness is worth it, whether the love and passion and drive that motivates men like Simmons’ Terence Fletcher or Teller’s Andrew to focus so completely on the pursuit of perfection to the detriment of their personal development in other areas is a blessing or a curse. It doesn’t tell us whether a teacher like Fletcher — somebody whose love of his students’ craft and desire to push them beyond reason in pursuit of their full potential results in mental and physical cruelty of the sharpest possible pain — is a genius or a sociopath. Damien Chazelle withholds judgment on whether Andrew needed the “good job” positive love of father or the “not good enough” harsh driving of Fletcher. The answer’s probably ‘both’ on all fronts anyways.
The point is that, rather than answer any of these questions, Whiplash presents the cost of greatness and then lets the characters play them out in the most compelling and true way possible.
Like I said, this might be the greatest “music movie” ever made. It’s a love story to the personalities and music and lore that populate the world of jazz, from the charts Fletcher assigns to his jazz ensemble to the detail with which Miles Teller replicates Buddy Rich’s orgiastic, sweaty, chaotic slouching over the drum kit. It’s a movie made by somebody who knows and loves the genre of jazz and the kind of obsessive reverence its adherents hold for stories like Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker, but is also removed far enough away from the experience to be able to step outside and critique/admire the scene. A typical movie basically relies on two axes to tell story: visual appearance (how a character looks) and dialogue (what the character says). But music in Whiplash is a third axis, another dimension of storytelling where the music advances our knowledge of character, what they’re experiencing and how they’re expressing themselves.
And that final climactic drum solo. Good God, that last drum solo.
It’s beautiful. It’s terrifying. It’s balls-gripping, climax-rising, emotional-rollercoaster-riding, stick-your-finger-in-a-socket electrifying cinema and improvisation (or a cinematic portrayal of jazz improvisation, at least) at its finest. Self-contained chaos explodes in creaming-your-sonic-pants fervor as Teller’s drumming builds in perfect tandem with Simmons’ direction. It’s a goddamn shame the clip isn’t on the internet.
Like the film itself, that climactic scene is unexpected and beautiful and joyful and a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows. It’s a perfect distillation and expression of Andrew and Fletcher and their relationship together, a physical and emotional release that doesn’t worry about whether or not so much torment and expended effort was worth it, but instead just savors its own brilliance and joy.