I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
List Appearances: 5/10
Average Rank: 72
Highest Rank: 43 on IMDb Top 250
Total Final Score: 1050
Whiplash is a movie about jazz! Where director Damien Chazelle celebrated it with the delightful La La Land, in this film, he shows the all-consuming pursuit of perfection.
If I’m being honest, I was surprised to see this one on the list. I watched it last year and admittedly loved it for the powerful and complete performance of the great JK Simmons. I also was uncertain what I could gain from a second viewing, believing, foolishly, that it was a once-off type of movie, like Requiem for a Dream. It leaves a lasting impression, for sure, but it’s a tough watch. It may need to come with a trigger warning.
Whiplash starts with a black screen and the sound of drums building to a crescendo. The screen opens into a hallway outside a drum practice room with our main character, Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller), practicing a non-standard drum set. The camera slowly travels closer to him. As it enters the doorway a voice tells us the camera was actually Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), listening to the untapped potential of a freshman drummer. In this first scene, their dynamic as teacher and student is defined. It is a toxic bully-victim relationship.
Fletcher is condescending, foul-mouthed, and aggressive. In the first Studio Band practice session Neiman attends, a trombonist is flat, leading to an explosive scene in which an overweight player is bullied about his weight and his inability to know if he was flat or not. Fletcher’s face is within an inch of his, and you can almost feel the spittle from his tirade on your flesh. Not long after that, he throws a chair at Neiman’s head for not keeping tempo. Because this is the most prestigious music school and Fletcher is the best of the best, these students just take it. When most people would have punched Fletcher out by now, they just cower and accept it.
At home, Neiman sits with family at the dinner table. When they ignore him or his efforts to make the studio band, he’s arrogant and dismissive of them. His pursuit to be one of the greatest drummers alive means he has no time for relationships and friendships, and he drives everyone away. Meanwhile he practices until his hands bleed, tapes them up, and continues.
Damien Chazelle wrote and directed the film, showing a frenetic energy to his editing as shots of drums, cymbals, and close ups of Neiman (sometimes not Teller) help to show real drum play without Teller, who was a rock drummer before the movie but not a jazz drummer. Chazelle loosely based the story on his experience as a young musician. He shows a great passion for the music behind the story and the stories about the jazz musicians that clearly shaped him. It was with Whiplash that he had his breakout success, and he hasn’t made a wrong turn yet. Since Whiplash‘s release in 2014, Chazelle has won best director for La La Land (2016) and First Man was released in 2018, with critical success.
It is a brilliant film and one that should be viewed at least once.
Check in on Friday for my next review on the instant classic, The Princess Bride.