Whiplash is the breakout 2014 film from director/writer Damien Chazelle, who went on to direct La La Land and First Man. When people think of Chazelle and his films, most people think about those latter two films; this is mostly due to the high-profile nature of them. La La Land is the revival of big-budget Hollywood musicals and First Man is a biopic of the world-famous astronaut Neil Armstrong. Both of those films had massively famous casts headlined by Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Jason Clarke and Claire Foy. Whiplash, on the other hand, was headlined by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, who were, at the time, known for indie comedies and Law and Order, respectively.
Yes, Whiplash won three Academy Awards and was nominated for five, which automatically gave it more prominence, but that doesn’t mean people actually saw it. It made $49 million at the box office, which isn’t an insignificant amount at all. In comparison, La La Land made almost $450 million and First Man made $105 million.
Comparatively, Whiplash was seen much less than Chazelle’s other wide-release work. That’s truly a shame because it’s easily his best film. That doesn’t mean those other two films aren’t great, they are, especially La La Land, but Whiplash is just on another level. It’s a film that benefits significantly from its simplicity and feeling of claustrophobia. Every part of the film comes together brilliantly, especially the musical elements, cinematography and editing.
There are very few films that I consider perfect. Whiplash is one of them.
The previously mentioned stars, Teller and Simmons, are both phenomenal in the film; Simmons even won an Academy Award for his performance. Simmons gets most of the spotlight when it comes to the discussion of the film, rightfully so; his performance as the extremely self-righteous conductor, Fletcher, makes this film, but Teller is greatly underappreciated as Andrew. While Simmons gives the film his all and is over-the-top in all the right ways, Teller grounds the film and sells every situation to the audience. While Teller might not be going nearly as big in his performance as his co-star, his contribution to the film should not be as understated by audiences and critics as it is on screen.
Both of these actors sell the film in different ways, but the real star of the show is the music, which should be evident due to the film being named after a song and the entire plot having to do with a jazz band. Chazelle just loves jazz, something hammered home in Whiplash and then further cemented in La La Land.
The score was done by a frequent collaborator of Chazelle, Justin Hurwitz, and his music is absolutely gorgeous. It’s lush, vibrant and, obviously, heavy on the drums. Nicholas Britell was also involved in the film as a producer and songwriter. Britell is most known for his work as the composer for Moonlight and the TV series Succession; he also served as a producer of the original short Chazelle produced.
Chazelle originally made a short film of the same title in 2013, a sort of proof of concept for the eventual full-length film. That short, which is included in the home release of the feature-length film, is remarkably close to one of the film’s iconic scenes of Fletcher berating Andrew, who, in the short, is played by Johnny Simmons, on his first day in the band.
These scenes of Fletcher verbally and physically abusing Andrew and the other musicians are tense and terrifying, in both the short and the feature, but none of them come close to the film’s climactic final performance. Andrew’s command of not only the songs but of the stage as a whole is a sight to behold. It’s one of the most immensely satisfying and cathartic endings I’ve ever seen put to film.
The filmmaking prowess on display in that finale is just insane. Chazelle knows just what the audience wants to see and hear; the visual language of it all just brings it all together. In particular, the quick panning of the camera back and forth from Andrew to Fletcher during the drum fills is just immaculate. The finale is an insanely effective microcosm of the film as a whole, highlighting the insane attention to detail in Chazelle’s script and direction. It’s an ending that only bookends the sheer perfection that is this film, the other bookend being the opening scene of Andrew being discovered practicing his drums by Fletcher.
It’s a testament to Chazelle’s writing that he figured out how to bookend the film focused on the same two characters’ conflicts and desires when those characters shouldn’t always align in location or schedule. Also, the film contrasts the characters we see from the first frame to the last frame, who have completely reversed their respective confidences and life situations; Andrew starting at the bottom of the music world with no confidence and Fletcher being the inverse.
The constant manipulation is also on full display in both of these scenes, again, flipping from Fletcher to Andrew. Fletcher manipulates Andrew for the entire runtime of the film, even after he loses his job as his conductor, purely because of his self-righteous goal to create the greatest musicians alive by any means necessary. So when Andrew flips the script and manipulates Fletcher into doing something for him in the film’s final moments, it makes that ending even sweeter.
It’s truly a shame to me that Chazelle has completely moved on from smaller projects like Whiplash to focus on huge Hollywood productions. Yes, he’s enjoying the fruits of his labor and is getting to make bigger films with less budgetary restraints, but that, to me, comes at the cost of the personality and prowess that came from the small scale of his early work. With his next project being Babylon, which stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Tobey Maguire and Olivia Wilde, the chances of him going back to that small scale are looking slimmer and slimmer.
All that being said, there’s absolutely nothing I would change about Whiplash; I can’t honestly say the same about the vast majority of films I’ve seen, even among those I love it wouldn’t be honest to say that. This film is just that good. I know it may be jarring to see J. Jonah Jameson tear into Reed Richards for not playing the drums to his absurdly high standards, but it’s something you must experience if you’re a fan of film and visionaries behind them.