I approached Whiplash expecting to like it. I underestimated it and it floored me, I loved it. I'll describe my expectations: I expected a witty, good enough, coming of age indie flick with the sly direction of a flashy youth. I expected milk chocolate, and was served dark with red wine. At first I was cautious, we start on black with the pitter patter of drums until boom! Heavy bass and the title emerges 'WHIPLASH' in humble size upon the screen. Okay fine with me; and then our ambitious drummer orders some snacks at the theater, and a montage rips across the screen: close up on a stream of soda, the tightening of a cheese lid. Impressive display sure, but necessary to exercise over some popcorn and soda? Hardly, or so I thought.
My initial impressions were wrong because Whiplash is in total control of it's technique. I was aware of an impressive rhythm to the cinematography and the cuts, but I did not foresee the ensemble or even assume it would build to one. When Andrew orders his concessions his attention collects the nuance of the noise, it's about their tempo not their look. We see this world subjectively through Andrew. He has a singular drive, to not just excel as a drummer, but be one of the greats. That one all consuming passion, orients itself only in soundscape. So when Andrew wanders around the city, and wastes in the company of family and friend, the choice to shoot on seductive Leica Summilux primes is not simply the sexy choice, it is the cohesive one. Corrode that to layman's terms, those scenes are shot with a very shallow depth of field, barely an inch in focus save the sliver reserved for our uninterested protagonist.
His visual surroundings become a creamy blur, but listen to that keen sound design, we hear in such detail, because Andrew does. It communicates that Andrew has a resentful disinterest for the time he spends in these scenes, and shifts our attention instead to the detail of the sounds. My goodness such poise! Sophomore director Damien Chazelle doesn't slip once at the helm. Look what he's done with the most conventional of narratives, a student and his demanding teacher. It's been spread out to abstraction and lingers like a cautionary dream. Andrew draws the attention of Fletcher, a ruthless instructor at an already elitist music school. Fletcher believes that (in a line that is already being quoted all over) "There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'Good Job'"
He often flaunts the story of how Charlie Parker became the legend he is, by getting a cymbal tossed at his head by Jo Jones and being laughed off the stage. But Parker came back a legend because of this humiliation, and Fletcher finds effectiveness in causing that pain to weed out the meek. He is mentally destructive, verbally abusive to an extreme, and physically terrifying. He's fine with scorching the minds of many, to find one who can fight through it. Andrew takes it like a drug, he's addicted, he finds no worth in being anything but great. His father is not so impressed by this will. He has a higher value for happiness. When Andrew brags that everyone knows Charlie Parker's name without ever actually knowing him, his father acknowledges that he also died lonely, addicted to drugs, and at the young age of 34. But Andrew dismisses it, and his fathers ideology that it is worth more to be remembered by your family and friends, than by an infinite amount of strangers.
It questions the human obsession to become something great. It's a greatness essentially defined by inhumanity, accomplishing great feats unnatural to man. The peak is an abstract ecstasy. Andrew is willing to sacrifice everything to reach a state of questionable divinity. Perhaps in a way it's a correlation to his mothers early death. He obsesses over invisible influences, like the inspiration of the long gone Charlie Parker, but his mothers absence is likely more critical to his character. It creates an unconscious drive to plummet himself into greatness, abstraction, and even death.
You may wonder how it balances these elements, but the answer is quite simple, with music. I don't mean just literally music, I mean the feel of music. It cut's on the rhythm and tracks on the dot. Jazz is it's musical realm, it chose the best. The whole film has variation in feel and pattern, it floats a wave and somehow manages a three act structure. The film feels like Jazz. But this is the mean Jazz you rarely hear, it's less lethargic and more aggressive. It's got sax but it roars. It's intense as hell, the competitions make you anxious, and the end will grind your teeth to the gums.
That ending. It will go widely misunderstood, I've seen people call it 'inspiring', hardly, try bone curdling and evocative. I'll soften that and say it ends cautionary. The beauty sure seems victorious, but at what cost, and think about it, what reward?