“There are no two words in the English language as harmful as 'good job',” a teacher tells his student. 'Good job' means being content with mediocrity. 'Good job' means just doing what's required instead of doing all you could. 'Good job' does not describe greatness.
And so those are two words you won't find me using to describe Whiplash, which is an exciting, involving, invigorating, absolute lightning bolt of a film; As keenly observed as the most refined of dramas, and yet as pulse-raising as the most intense of action movies; An electrifying combustion of artistic crisis, coming-of-age and jazz music, announcing the arrival of an extraordinary new talent in writer-director Damien Chazelle. 'Good job' doesn't come close to describing this film. It is great.
Now you may not think you have a good ear for jazz, but Chazelle will convince you otherwise while you're watching his film. He does a brilliant job of tuning us into Andrew's acoustic senses. DoP Sharone Meir often focuses on Andrew's face or ears, visually blurring the people and things he's hearing in the periphery, while supervising sound editors/mixers Craig Mann & Ben Wilkins articulate the sonic subtleties of every instrument.
Andrew knows that to really stand out from the dozens of gifted musicians at Shaffer, he'll have to catch the eye (or the ear, rather) of its preeminent Studio Band instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Turns out getting Fletcher's attention was is the easy part. The hard part is surviving the man's vicious rehearsal sessions, where you never know when you're about to have a profane insult (or a chair) hurled at you.
His virtual blood lust makes Whiplash one of the most violent films of the year, but not physically so. Its his venomous psychological bullying, both subversive and overt, that cuts the deepest. He feigns interest in Andrew's family background – chiefly his high school teacher father (Paul Reiser) and his absentee mother – only to stockpile emotional ammunition he can later unload on Andrew if he should rush a millisecond ahead of Fletcher's impossibly specific tempo.
The blood, sweat and tears Andrew pours into his craft are all too literal under this toxic tutelage. And yet it's hard to decide what's more unnerving: Fletcher's abusive rapport with Andrew, or the thought that it's starting to rub off on the impressionable youth.
The mild-mannered innocent we meet at the beginning of Whiplash may not survive to the closing curtain. His father, once as warm and comforting a parental figure as he could hope for, becomes a taunting symbol of complacency in Andrew's eyes; A cautionary tale in settling for anything less than absolute greatness. The dreaded “good job”.
This complex teacher-student/victim-tormentor relationship comes to a fore in a climatic concert sequence, which finds the two combatants locked in a musical war of wills. Few directors can make instrumental music come alive on film the way Chazelle does in this explosion of bravura filmmaking.
He conjures astonishing slo-mo shots of the sweat rippling off of Andrew's cymbals. The camera pans back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher so furiously it threatens to give the viewer actual whiplash! All throughout this enrapturing finale (and the entire film, actually), editor Tom Cross keeps impeccable time with the dizzying tempo of Justin Hurwitz's scintillating jazz orchestrations. If you happen to love this genre of music, that's just the cherry on top!
It's certainly to Chazelle's benefit that both of his principle actors have extensive musical training themselves; Teller having played drums since age 16, and Simmons having studied composition at the University of Montana before occupying numerous musical roles on Broadway.
Nor does Chazelle ask us to consider that the pain Fletcher inflicts can indeed spur a student to surpass his potential, because we know – in the pit of our stomachs – that to be true as well. All the greatest minds of history had to suffer to achieve their genius, and continued to suffer under the weight of it. The price of greatness is high.
The question Chazelle does leave us to ponder once the hopped-up rhythms finally subside from our heads (fair warning: that takes a while!), is whether or not such greatness is really worth that high a price.
**** out of ****