Film Grains: Whiplash (2014)

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Anticipation:  4/5  The buzz surrounding the Whiplash is immense.  J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller’s respective performances look spectacular.

Final Verdict:  2/5  The performances are, without question, exceptional. However, the whole experience is rather underwhelming due to jagged filmmaking.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a socially inept music student wants to become the world’s preeminent drummer. Dr. Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical conductor at the Schaffer Conservatory of New York, is determined to unlock Andrew’s potential no matter the cost.

First-time director Damien Chazelle shows faith in his screenplay as well as his actors. Both Teller and Simmons are impressive as Andrew and Fletcher, respectively, not only because of the confidence they have in each other, but also because the dialogue is colorful, rich and sharp. But, what begins as an intimate look at what it takes to be the best at the Schaffer Conservatory, shifts into a kitsch rendition of the clichéd “it takes blood, sweat and tears to succeed” motif. Andrew’s perseverance, dedication and obsessive need to please Fletcher reach farcical heights when not even a full on car collision stops Andrew from making it to a recital.

The film relies on its score to push action forward. The music is beautiful. Every jazz piece played will have you bobbing your head and tapping your feet. Fletcher is the character driving the music and as such, much of the attention is directed towards him and his honing of the band’s sound. So much so that the intensity of Andrew’s practicing gets pushed to the background, and that’s an issue. The film is supposed to be about Andrew’s burning ambition to be the most prolific jazz drummer in history, yet Fletcher’s Gunnery-Sergeant-Hartman-like intensity and cruelty tower over any emotional connection the audience is supposed to make with Andrew. Fletcher himself is akin to the shark from Jaws. Anytime the music kicks in, the audience finds itself in anticipation as to who is going to get violently chewed up next.

The main problem, however, is the filmmaking. Because the band is stationary, Chazelle decides he must move the camera around to create the impression of action. The camera travels from left to right, from right to left as though it were swaying with the music, but the whole affair simply comes off as amateurish at best. Put the camera down and let the music and performances speak for themselves. Moreover, the editing is absolutely horrendous. Moving from tight shots to establishing shots back to medium shots to farther away establishing shots is poor cinematic language (Martin Scorsese explains its importance here). The band is in a concert hall, a place that does not need to be re-established many times during a scene. The end sequence’s use of increasingly wider establishing shots is to evoke the grandeur of what is being played on stage, the resonance so to speak, but the editing makes the director’s camera work look sloppy or vice versa. The duel between Andrew and Fletcher is at the heart of the film and by the time the film reaches its climax, intimate shots would be more appropriate. The remainder of the band is there for show and the film cuts away to them too often than is necessary. The audience must listen to them because they have to, not because they want to.

Overall, the film is a pleasant yet forgettable watch. What started as a short film should have stayed a short film. For what it’s worth, all I can say to everyone involved is: ‘good job.’

And just for kicks, here’s Don Ellis’ version of Whiplash. Enjoy!

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