It’s really impressive when an artist shows what he gots right in his first work. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and even recently, with Dan Gilroy’s effective Nightcrawler. Each one of those movies has it’s significant importance to the periods they we’re released. Damien Chazelle won’t change the world or cinematographic language with Whiplash, but holy shit… The guy’s great.
The plot is inspired in a short movie directed by Chazelle himself, focusing on young Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), an ambitious prodigy drummer who works hard to be “one of the greatest”. Lonely, friendless and without the expected support from his family, Andrew gets selected to join his music school’s Studio Jazz Band, conducted by the influent Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). However, as Fletcher turns out to ben an obssessive monster, Andrew himself begins to question his limits.
Basically, Whiplash do with drummers what Black Swan did with ballerinas. From the crazy outbursts of obsession for perfection to the bloody work instruments, Damien Chazelle maintains a firm and flawless conduction, showing masterful domain of several types of framings (come on, how many ways there are of framing a drum set?), shots, camera movements. Aided by cinematographer Sharone Meir, Chazelle envises a New York city that is at the same time dark and harmonious, achieving a color palette similar to the ones David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth use on their collaborations – which for me, is always a positive point.
And I hereby dedicate an entire paragraph to discuss Tom Cross’ supernatural editing work. In charge of organizing and mixing all of the material shot by Chazelle, Cross offers a frenetic editing that benefits of quick time acceleration achieved by fast, precise cuts and jump cuts, while also providing long takes when necessary – like Andrew and Nicole’s (Melissa Benoist) initial flirt. But it’s really on the musical numbers where Cross truly knocks it out of the park, where each and every transition follows a musical cue, and every cut follows a different hit from Andrew’s drumsticks. Oscar worthy material, nothing less.
If technically flawless, it’s basic skelleton doesn’t disappoints. The screenplay is incisive by creating different situations that truly test the protagonist’s limis, as well as brawl dialogs exploring how ambition and pretension are separated by a very thin line: an argument with cousins at the dinner table and a bleak break-up are only a few examples. But there’s nothing Andrew do that can match J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, on an spectacular performance that presents us to one of the most brutal, sadic and enigmatic antagonists in recent memory. His “the jazz is dying” speech, and the already iconic “good job” lesson are both brilliant, proving as a worthy conterpoint to Miles Teller’s sweaty, hardworking performance.
Whiplash is a movie that works just like a symphonic orchestra. Every department plays it’s function masterfully, exactly like musical instruments, each and every one under the conduction of an intelligent director, delivering a mesmerizing experience. At the end, all I could shout out was “bravo”.