In Whiplash (2014), director Damien Chazelle artfully captures how easily the journey towards exceptionalism can eclipse reason and self regard. While communicating this concept, Chazelle takes jazz music, a subject which is not conventionally dramatic, and creates a tightly-wound suspense thriller with gritty cinematography, intricate editing, and stellar acting performances.
In his Film Comment article “Performance Anxiety,” author Chris Norris indicates that Andrew Neiman’s character (portrayed by Miles Teller) is defined by the sound that plays over several seconds of darkness, the sound of “a few taps on an open snare, the sticks held in a tensile grip” as “taut Mylar and coiled steel escalat[e] to a steady, sizzling roll” (36). This militant sound is followed by the first visual frame of the film: a long shot of Andrew sitting behind a drum set in the music conservatory at the end of a dimly lit corridor (Figure 1). Film protagonists are not typically introduced from so far away, and not only is he held at an unusual distance from the audience for several moments, but he is also dwarfed by the drum set surrounding him. From the very first scene, Chazelle communicates with this compositional language the idea that Andrew believes himself to be less important that his music. As the film goes on, Andrew continues to shed layers of his personality, including his shyness, humor, and kindness. He also cuts ties with those he cares about in order to focus solely on drumming, until it is his only passion, ambition, concern. By the end of the film, drumming has become his entire identity.
Yet this first scene is just a glimpse of what is to come. All viewers can see in this moment is Andrew and this drumset, spotted from the end of a dark hallway. As the scene goes on, the camera slowly pans forward and wanders down the hallway to close in on him, as Andrew adjusts a cymbal and readies his sticks before tearing furiously into the drums. In the Sight & Sound article “Slave To The Rhythm,” Nick James quotes Chazelle as saying that he intentionally opened with Andrew doing rolls on the snare drum because the sound of that particular drum is reminiscent of the military and indicates thematically “that a war is about to start” (24). And what is war without an enemy? Just when the camera reaches the doorway and Andrew’s features start to become more distinct in the frame, the camera lingers in the threshold of the practice room and Andrew’s eyes dart up to meet a figure out of view. He apologizes and leaps to his feet, and the film introduces Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) for the first time, clad in black and barely visible in the shadows of the hallway.
A ghostly hand reaches out of the dark as Fletcher tells him to say, and then he steps forward more fully into the light, interrogating him for his name and year as Andrew squirms in his seat. They go back and forth, with Andrew exhibiting his drumming skills while Fletcher trades barbs that are gentle quips compared to the future obscenities he will scream in coming scenes. Here, Chazelle makes it clear that Fletcher is a powerful and enigmatic figure by showing him “smoldering in shadows straight out of film noir” (Norris 36). This is Andrew’s first encounter with the man who will become his teacher and eventual abuser, and the overwhelming shadows, deep blues, and saturated yellows all evoke a gritty, dramatic intensity that indicates that their relationship going forward will be one built on fear and menace. Chazelle wanted his film to live in a “Godfather world of browns, yellows, and golds” (Figure 2) with the occasional blues utilized when Andrew steps outside the band room to escape Fletcher’s claustrophobic reign (James 25).
These feelings of dread permeate through the rest of the film and aid in making Whiplash what it is. Peter Debruge praises it in Variety’s “’Whiplash’ Delivers Psychic Beat-Down,” for destroying “cliches of the musical-prodigy genre” and “investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena” (Debruge 74). By changing the cinematography and lighting of the characters and their surroundings, Chazelle visually equates musicians to warriors and athletes. The artistic and thematic schemes typically reserved for the settings of sports, war, and aforementioned noir films are displaced from their genres and applied to Whiplash with thick strokes. Battle scars are replaced by bloodied hands torn raw from drumming too much, just as the trope of the inspirational coach is warped into Fletcher: a teacher who does not encourage perfection, but instead beats it out of his students.
The jazz songs in Whiplash use the drums “to build suspense and tension and as an expression of frustration and physical failure” (James 24). In sequences that emphasize musical numbers, frequent close-ups work in tandem with quick edits to produce a rhythm that is cinematically aligned with the piece itself. The sheer number of instruments, introduced separately in two second close-ups and brought together harmoniously in the compositions themselves, accentuate the complexity of music. Chazelle said he wanted viewers “hear the bits of pieces of saxophones being put together, cases opening, sheet music fluttered around, [and] the drums being tuned” to express the importance of even the most delicate of sounds, while also producing a sense of anxiety and hypersensitivity in viewers (James 25).
Viewers are forced into Andrew’s perspective by this ever present anxiety as well as the intensity of the lighting, cinematography, music, and editing. Each component allows the dark world of the music conservatory to swallow the audience whole, but it is perhaps Teller’s performance that bears the most weight in the believability and drama of the film. Debruge marvels at the range of Teller’s acting performance paired with the evolution of Andrew as a character, who starts out “too shy to exchange more than a few words with Nicole and reaches a point where he’s effectively pouring out his subconscious onstage” (Debruge 74). In less physically demanding scenes, Chazelle is fond of frequent and lengthy close-ups in which Andrew’s face dominates the frame and the camera lingers too close for comfort, forcing us to wonder about the thoughts rushing through his mind and watch him grapple with the quiet emotional pain he’s feeling in reaction to Fletcher’s torment. Alternatively, Teller is able to convincingly sell scenes that might seem overly melodramatic out of context, such as concussed and injured Andrew (Figure 3) limping to his music competition from a car accident, “determined to play through whatever neurological damage would likely throw his double-time swing off just a hair” (Norris 38). Because Teller plays Andrew with genuine sincerity, viewers are never given room to question why Andrew is destroying himself for his art, and he destroys himself repeatedly. In Ramin Setoodeh’s Variety article “Teller Feels a New Beat at This Year’s Sundance,” Teller remarked upon how draining the role was, saying that he exhausted himself on set because his character is “either bleeding or crying or sweating” with little time for rest in between (23).
It is worth noting that in films where the protagonist is working to achieve a goal or personal reward, the antagonist is often either an opposing figure that threatens their status or their own self-doubt. The antagonist of Whiplash is also Andrew’s greatest ally towards greatness – his music teacher Fletcher. Norris remarks that Simmons gives “a career-best performance as the ropey, head-shaved, skin tight-black-T-shirted Fletcher” who acts as the demanding “gatekeeper to the snowcapped heights of professional jazz” (Norris 38). After Andrew has been invited to join Fletcher’s band as an alternate drummer, they share a brief conversation in the hallway. Andrew is noticeably intimidated by Fletcher as he leans over him and asks him questions about his family life, but Fletcher’s tone is gentle and his words are encouraging. By the end of their talk, Andrew is nodding and smiling, having repeated Fletcher’s sentiment back to him that he is “there for a reason.” Fletcher pats him on the back and they turn to join the rest of the band in the practice room, a smug grin plastered on Andrew’s face. As he settles at the drum kit, he soon learns that the Fletcher he spoke with in the hallway was a facade. The real Fletcher reveals himself seconds into their rehearsal, and he is out for blood.
Viewers can see the rage growing in Fletcher as Andrew starts to produce imperfect beats and his frustration builds. He has Andrew drum out a beat before stopping him. And prodding him to continue. And stopping him again. Again. Again. It’s still not his tempo. Simmons masterfully adds subtle gestures to express Fletcher’s growing anger like balled fists, flared nostrils, pursed lips, and impatient head shakes. Then seemingly out of nowhere, Fletcher picks up a chair and hurls it across the room at Andrew, missing his head by inches. His anger can no longer be contained, it spills out of him like an erupting volcano. The volume of his voice increases to a shout, though he’s only a foot away from Andrew’s face. Fletcher’s furious scowl fills the frame as the camera shows us Andrew’s perspective, causing the audience to feel as though they too have failed him (Figure 4). He starts slapping Andrew’s cheeks with audible cracks, demanding him to keep time like a depraved human metronome. And then as Andrew begins to cry, Fletcher does something even worse than a stinging slap across the face – he calls him a “worthless piece of s–t” and announces to the entire class that Andrew’s mother abandoned him as a child. In less than five minutes Fletcher has gone from laughing with him in the hallway to ripping him apart mercilessly in a crowded room of his peers. This polarizing exhibitions of behavior from Fletcher add to the tension of the film and help viewers identify with Andrew while keeping them on the edge of their seats, wary that at any moment, “a cymbal might come flying” at their heads (James 24).
This scene feels authentically dramatic because of the performances of the actors, as well as the semi-autobiographical nature of the material. According to Rebecca Ford’s article “Making Of Whiplash,” Chazelle drew from his own experiences as a young drummer when writing and directing these scenes. He recalls his teacher’s “constant, insulting shouting,” “cowering from bullying,” and growing so overwhelmed that he “punched his fist through his drum” out of frustration (Ford 76). Chazelle channeled these painful memories into Whiplash, and the result is a dramatic thriller boiling with fear, anguish, and ferocity.
In the end Andrew has proven himself to be “one of the greats” and seems to have finally earned Fletcher’s approval. He has worked and bled and tortured himself to reach that fleeting moment of feeling truly exceptional, but there is no saccharine happy ending. Andrew has achieved his goal of personal perfection but has sacrificed his own self-worth in the process, while undergoing constant physical and psychological abuse at Fletcher’s hand. Chazelle could have easily constructed a film dripping with melodrama and ripe with warm, inspirational undertones. Instead he chose to plunge his protagonist, and the audience, into the dark unseen corners of the competitive music world.
Debruge, Peter. “‘Whiplash’ Delivers Psychic Beat-Down.” Variety 322.14 (2014): 74. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Ford, Rebecca. “Making Of Whiplash.” Hollywood Reporter 420.43 (2014): 76-78. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
James, Nick. “Slave To The Rhythm.” Sight & Sound 25.2 (2015): 24-27. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
Norris, Chris. “Performance Anxiety.” Film Comment 50.5 (2014): 36-39. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.
Setoodeh, Ramin. “Teller Feels A New Beat At This Year’s Sundance.” Variety 322.14 (2014): 23. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.