"Not my tempo"
My friend, the inimitable Mr B, decribed this movie as, "Fullmetal Jacket in a music school" and though that is, no doubt, a rather simplistic comparison, it is nonetheless quite apt. My thoughts also drift to the HBO series Band of Brothers, which begins by showing us the formation of Easy Company under the command of brutal, Herbert Sobel, and how the men of Easy become that much more hardened DUE to their harsh taskmaster. And, in the world of sport, tales of coaches and managers pushing their particular charges to, and indeed beyond, the limit in the pursuit of success, are commonplace.
Based on his real life experiences of Princeton High School, Damien Chazelle's Whiplash must be the greatest jazz drumming film ever! As a musician myself, and a sometime drummer to boot, I don't think I have ever seen a fictional movie quite so 'on pitch' with the rhythm and tempo of actually playing in a band. That's not to say one must be a musician to appreciate this movie but the smaller details will delight those in the know. I must also say that being a fan of jazz music is also not a pre-requisite as, for the most part, I do not get jazz. Never have, never will. I just can't dance to it! Maybe that's more a failing on my part but well, there it is. I'm not a jazz fan but I loved this movie.
In simple terms, Whiplash is the story of ambitious music student Andrew Neiman, (Miles Teller) and his intimidating band leader/conductor, Terence Fletcher, (JK Simmons, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role) both trying to be the best that they can be. Andrew is a drummer and a student of jazz at the Shaffer School in New York, where he is recruited by Fletcher to be understudy to the drum position in the school studio band. Very quickly, Andrew realises that Fletcher's methods of teaching are more about abuse than nurturing and with a blossoming love life with local cinema clerk, Nicole, (Melissa Benoist) to consider, he suddenly has a lot of juggling to do. It's no coincidence that Andrew triumphantly makes Fletcher's band and then has the courage to ask Nicole out for pizza.
From the minute we meet Andrew riffing on his snare drum, we know what his passion is. From the Buddy Rich posters and CD's to the sweat dripping from his forehead at every practice session, we know. Already in place at the prestigious Shaffer School, he obviously has talent. Once Fletcher walks in though, he may as well be nobody. Fletcher, dressed all in black with broad shoulders and upper arms like cannons, settles immediately into the intimidating enigma of a band leader for whom everyone wants to play. He counts his band in with the merest movement or flick of his fingers and stops them with a wild fisted gesture and nobody dares to let him down.
Such is the skill in both the writing and playing of Fletcher that we feel sympathy for this diminutive and abrasive individual. It's a fine line between being an inspirational leader and a tyrannical despot and indeed, everyone watching this movie will feel differently about the methods of encouragement used by Fletcher. "Sure he threw a chair at the guy....but he didn't hit him." "Yeah, he slapped him...but he's just making a point about dragging or rushing the tempo." Or, "I'd wrap those sticks round his head if he spoke to me like that"
Undoubtedly, there can be no justification for physical abuse but try telling that to Terence Fletcher. JK Simmons plays him masterfully, well deserving of his Academy Award.
Miles Teller is also phenomenal as Andrew. I wondered about the training for this movie as drums, and especially jazz drums, with that funny (traditional) left hand grip thing going on, are not something you pick up in a couple of days. However, Miles was already a 'rock' drummer and this, at least, gave him some basis to start from. His performance at the drum kit is astounding. The tensing, grimacing, sweating and shaking is all completely real. The bleeding, taped fingers plunging into a jug of ice cubes is spot on. I've been there! Teller also has an incredibly emotive face. Being able to portray tiny little emotions with just a hint of a smile or a look in his eyes. I should also mention that Andrew's Dad is played by Paul Reiser, who I haven't seen since Aliens, in a lovely but subtle supporting role.
The film's climax is simply breathtaking with a full performance of the track, Caravan, at a jazz festival, in which Andrew performs an extended and thrilling drum solo and although I'm no fan of jazz I can fully appreciate the feel and swing in this and, of course, the titular track, Whiplash, itself, both of which are magnificent as played in the film.
Whiplash started out as a lauded screenplay then became a short film which received rave reviews at the Sundance film festival, eventually allowing Chazelle to expand the story to feature length. Filmed in an incredible 19 days in a Los Angeles posing as New York, the film has a simple, clean, unfussy look. The New York we see looks like the night-time New York from 1970's and 1980's movies. All blues and blacks and dull neon lights. Shots are nicely framed and the editing, in time with the musical cues, is fantastic.
Being such a personal feature for Chazelle, Whiplash was surely always destined for greatness. Coming in with a budget of about $3 million, grossing over $30 million at the box office, accruing 3 Academy Awards, with Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing along with JK Simmons Best Supporting Actor Award, it has most certainly been a success and is one of my favourite recent films.
Whiplash was shot entirely digitally and Sony presents it here on Blu-ray with a beautiful looking 1080p transfer. Framed at 2.40:1, the image is clear and detailed with every blemish and line on Andrews face visible in close up. Musical notes and amendments can be read off the sheet music and even the texture of the paper can be discerned. The pits and bobbling of a snare drum head can be made out and in the sequences with the band in full flow I swear I can see the build up of sweat on the practice room walls! Reflections bouncing off a double bass are pin sharp and shadows are just that. Colours, generally, seem to be warm and comfortable with occasional turns to cooler blue but they all ring true and correct. I did notice an unseemly effect on a panning shot down a windowed building but that could be my TV set up at the moment. Otherwise, this is a great looking transfer.
The audio track, obviously, plays an important role in the enjoyment of a movie such as this and thankfully this disc does not disappoint. With a measured but chunky 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, Whiplash delivers a great audio experience but it really, really soars when the music plays. Dialogue is crisp and precise. Ambience, whether it be in a dingy practice room or Carnegie Hall is warm and uncluttered but the real star is the music. When the band(s) play this 5.1 track lifts off skyward. All the instruments in this extended band sing and dance, coming through clearly from every channel. I defy anybody not to feel their head start to move when the drumbeat to Caravan kicks in. Truly magnificent.
A very worthwhile set of extras on Blu-ray are headlined by a commentary with director, Damien Chazelle and star, JK Simmons, which is both very funny and very informative. They talk about extended or deleted scenes, casting, the journey of the film and it was here I discovered that, of course, the director is a drummer and, of course, Miles is a drummer, and, of course, the background artists are all real life players too. It all makes sense now! We also learn that some of the shots of New York ARE New York but mostly it is in fact L.A. Overall a brilliant chat track to listen to while re-watching the film.
Timekeepers is a 43 minute documentary focusing on some professional drummers, most of whom I'd never heard of, enthusing about their craft and how they became drummers. Amongst the drummer-ati is Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who I did recognise and is always good fun. An interesting little featurette, especially for musical types.
We also have the original short film, Whiplash, which is basically Andrew's audition scene from the feature film but Miles Teller is absent and the location is different. This runs 18 minutes and has an optional commentary with Damien Chazelle and a few of his crew.
An Evening at the Toronto International Film Festival is an 8 minute segment with a brief Q&A with Chazelle, Teller and Simmons standing onstage answering questions.
Fletcher at Home is a short deleted scene with Fletcher. At home! He puts on a jazz record, slinks into a chair and....possible spoilers so I wont say but it's a nice little scene and within the context of the rest of the movie is possibly a huge reveal into the psyche of this man. This also has optional commentary.
The extras round out with a good old theatrical trailer.
An extraordinary movie examining drive and ambition in two individuals and the willingness to perhaps journey to the dark side in order to achieve greatness. Do not be scared off if, like me, you are not a fan of jazz. The music is only the background to this, very human, tale of perseverance in the face of adversity and ultimately, we hope, some sort of redemption. Sony's Blu-ray is a cracking presentation of the film with a beautiful picture and peerless sound. Packaged with a generous amount of excellent extras, Whiplash is one of my top BD releases of the year so far.