Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash ends, as all things should, with a drum solo, a furious yet precise assault of clattering cymbals and skins enacted by Miles Teller’s Andrew Neyman, a prodigious drumming student at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in midtown Manhattan. It’s the percussionist’s final parry in his duel with Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a sadistic conductor and senior-level instructor at the school. As Neyman’s solo grows more complex and immense, the studied technique that he’s spent the entirety of the film trying to hone breaks out into wild, exacting ambition, an exhilarating final movement in a film deeply concerned with the limitations of control, and how that influences the measure of mastery.
The thrill of watching Fletcher and Neyman’s fray unfold is intensified by Chazelle’s attention to the craft and challenge of musicianship. Teller, a drummer for over a decade, does the lion’s share of his character’s playing, and Chazelle captures the astonishing physical ability, pain, and exhaustion that comes from trying to catch up to the likes of Buddy Rich and Max Roach. That’s mostly Teller’s own blood on the drum sets, and the other members of Shaffer’s core band, to say nothing of the other drummers in the film, are portrayed by trained musicians as well. This decision lends the film authenticity for sure, but it more importantly frees up Chazelle to use his camera more freely, without having to constantly hide stand-in performers and shoot around the mere illusion of talent.
Much like his protagonist, Chazelle shows a newfound formal control in Whiplash that was ever so slightly lacking from his exuberant debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and a vital tendency toward transcending that rigor. Working with DP Sharone Meir, the writer-director develops his own jazzy visual style, using close-ups of Fletcher’s hand motions, or the brushing of a young woman’s hair around her ear, to convey explosions of desire and anxiety. And in the finale, as Neyman faces a daunting Carnegie Hall crowd, Chazelle matches the volatile melodic curves of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with a visceral, rhythmic combination of pans, push-ins, close-ups, and tracking shots to convey the exciting tumult of Neyman’s talent taking full flight.
In Chazelle’s script for this year’s Grand Piano, a pulpy extortion plot is utilized as a nifty metaphor for a late master pianist’s ghostly hold on his favored student. Whiplash builds off of this idea, as Neyman’s increasing attraction to Fletcher’s manipulative fits of curse-laden fury begin to sculpt him professionally, but also seem to chip away at the quiet good humor and graciousness he gets from his father (Paul Reiser), a failed author turned English teacher, and a revealing mirror image of Fletcher. There’s an early charming scene where Neyman takes Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a cute concession clerk at his favorite cinema, out for pizza, and for once admits to a vulnerable nostalgia for his home, a need for looking back. Later, Chazelle smartly shows the decay of this personal softness in two subsequent scenes centered around intimate meals, including a riveting sequence at a family friend’s house where Neyman begins to mimic Fletcher’s penchant for lacerating criticism.
Whiplash works off of a familiar dramatic two-hander, but Chazelle refuses to define them in familiar terms. The fight between Neyman and Fletcher is less about realizing potential held back by pain and psychology than it is about defining and recognition of talent. Fletcher is fond of the famed story of Jo Jones tossing a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head, and his weakness is his own nostalgia for that age of prickly, tough, and brilliant musicians, and a wanting to recapture that time. In essence, Fletcher has never been interested in training and developing musicians, but rather in creating his own legend, making his own Jo Jones story through bullying and duplicity. Chazelle’s script makes this Achilles’ heel clear when Fletcher uses the death of a prized pupil to create the myth of a prodigious talent taken too soon, a cowardly, showy lie he uses to excuse his own role in the young musician’s untimely passing.
Ultimately, Chazelle has crafted a blistering indictment against those who’ve given in to the comforting cynicism that the great age of an art form has already passed. And considering the massive contingency of cinephiles and film scholars who still see the death of New Hollywood as the end of “serious” film culture, it’s not hard to see where the writer-director connects this to his own life and career. Beyond that, Chazelle goes onto suggest that a strict reading of technique is just as damaging as this obsession with the past, as if a great work of art can be quantified simply on the honing of its formal elements. Though Neyman showcases virtuosic skill by the end of the film, his rebellion comes from bucking Fletcher’s sense of control, by literally ignoring his role as conductor. Chazelle doesn’t belittle Fletcher’s positive influence on Neyman’s ability and style, but he’s emphatic about recognizing that moment when the rules congeal into restraints, and idols become something like adversaries.