Why It Works: Whiplash
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
As evidenced by the 87th Academy Awards, 2014 was a great year for nontraditional films, with Alejandro Iñárritu's BIRDMAN taking home Best Picture and Best Director, Wes Anderson receiving praise for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (perhaps his most Wes Anderson-y film to date), Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD taking a bold new approach to filmmaking, and Bennett Miller's FOXCATCHER giving us a taste of what it would be like if Michael Scott awkwardly tried to wrestle Magic Mike and then murdered the Hulk. Among the not-so-typical fare of the year was Damien Chazelle's WHIPLASH, the fast-paced, angry jazz band movie you didn't realize you wanted. Earning a ton of accolades during award season including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for J. K. Simmons and a Best Picture nomination, WHIPLASH depicts a dark look into the world of collegiate level jazz bands, including two main characters who will stop at nothing to succeed and an ending which leaves us wondering whether their struggle was actually worth it. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
When we first meet Andrew Neiman, he's pretty much what you'd expect- an innocent, driven, talented musician who wants to be the best at what he does. His amiable and uncomplicated nature makes him easy to like- and also gives him further to fall as he eschews relationships and his own well-being for a taste of success. We still mostly root for Andrew as he sours, partially because it's hard not to respect just how determined he is to make something of himself but also because he's still an angel compared to his dear old instructor. Terence Fletcher is basically what would happen if the R. Lee Ermey character from FULL METAL JACKET came back from Vietnam and got a job as a jazz band conductor. We mostly love Fletcher because he's such a maniac we just want to see how far he'll go, but Chazelle plays with our expectations and lets the occasional moment of empathy slip through. Like hearing how the ever-changing story of how the Joker got his scars, though, we eventually learn that even Fletcher's vulnerability comes with an insidious and self-serving agenda.
WHY WE CARE:
By giving us a villain in Fletcher, our hero Neiman's goal becomes crystal clear. The aspiring drummer must overcome all odds and reign supreme over his nemesis. If all that meant was training for a big end-of-year competition, for instance, we would quickly lose interest, as we'd just be biding our time until we finally get there. Instead, WHIPLASH revolves around three separate performances, each of which changes the thrust of the film. Once Neiman proves his worth by performing "Whiplash" from memory, he breaks up with his new girlfriend Nicole in order to focus even harder and ensure the other drummers won't overtake him. Herre we start to see Andrew's transformation into something darker, which culminates in him getting into a car accident while rushing to a competition. After unsuccessfully trying to perform in his shattered state, Andrew attacks Fletcher, thus ending his career at Shaffer. Finally, Andrew learns a former student of Fletcher's hanged himself rather than dying in an accident as Fletcher had let them believe. Andrew anonymously testifies to Fletcher's abusive methods, leading to the conductor's dismissal. Where WHIPLASH succeeds is in the question of what follows each of these instances. Chazelle could have said Andrew saving the day with "Whiplash" or playing a show after an accident or getting Fletcher fired was the pivotal, final moment of the film, but instead he gives us several of these moments and isn't afraid to explore what happens next.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
In what feels like an epilogue at its onset, Neiman and Fletcher run into each other months later and catch up, having cooled off from earlier events. Fletcher asks Neiman to play in an upcoming jazz festival, to which he agrees. All seems well and good until Fletcher sabotages Neiman at the last minute, revealing he knew it was him who gave the testimony that cost him his job. Faced with music he's unfamiliar with, Andrew is forced to leave the stage. Unwilling to accept defeat, Neiman returns to the stage moments later, hijacking the set and delivering an intense and impressive drum solo. Fletcher eventually goes along with it, and the two push and pull against each other, concluding in a cathartic moment for both as they hit their final note and the credits roll. On one hand, this finale checks all the boxes of a satisfying ending- we have a twist or two, the bad guy seemingly wins, and the good guy comes back to emerge triumphant. It's rare in the fact that Neiman's triumph is also Fletcher's, but that just adds to the genius of it all. What's unclear, though, is what this actually means for our two leads. We haven't necessarily seen either character learn a grand lesson and be changed for the better as a result. Neiman will still stop at nothing to succeed, and Fletcher will clearly still f*ck anyone over to serve his own interests. Chazelle refuses to go the traditional route of character development, focusing on the leads' immediate goals instead of their overall character, which results in a mor interesting and challenging film than we might expect going in. Moreover, by avoiding common drama tropes throughout the film, WHIPLASH plays more like a boxing match than a character study, so we find ourselves concerned less with the health and well-being of the characters and more on the outcome of the fight.
A drummer since 15, Miles Teller took lessons four hours a day, three times a week to prepare for this film.
WHY WE REMEMBER:
WHIPLASH is a film that never quite lets you get comfortable. Just when you think you're on Andrew's side or that you hate Fletcher, something comes along and makes you doubt yourself, and how exactly things are going to end up for the characters is in question all the way up until the final seconds of the film (and even then leaves you wondering what comes next). Chazelle's script and direction along with Tom Cross' editing make the film feel more like a thriller than a drama, and Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons give intense, raw, milestone performances (with Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist doing great work with their supporting roles, as well). It should also be noted that WHIPLASH is unique without feeling gimmicky, which seems to be increasingly rare these days. Yes, having never seen a film quite like this, we're intrigued, but we quickly find ourselves invested in the story and characters rather than depending on the novelty of the subject matter to keep us interested. Damien Chazelle's next film, LA LA LAND, starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, J. K. Simmons, Finn Whitrock, and Rosemarie DeWitt, hits theaters later this year and also lives in the jazz world. Hopefully he knocks it out of the park again and a new subgenre- the jazz thriller- is born. That would so be my tempo.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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