There are no two words more dangerous in the English language than ‘good job'” – this proclamation, ardently declared by Jazz instructor Fletcher (JK Simmons), serves as Whiplash‘s tagline. This phrase comes to define Fletcher as a character as well as Damien Chazelle‘s sophomore feature. As becomes clear early on, the two are inextricably linked.
This is the feature-length reprise of Chazelle’s award-laden short, made a year previously. With the director having made just one feature prior to this, it is startling to witness such concise, sincere and confident filmmaking on display. His ability to fully immerse his audience in this potentially pedantic subject matter elevates this picture from what could have been damp melodrama to artistic greatness. And in riveting fashion. Filmed elegantly by Sharon Mier (Coach Carter, Mean Creek), the film excels through sharp, confident shots with a warmth and charm rarely found elsewhere than Louis Armstrong. This is only enhanced through taught editing from Tom Cross. The unique visual identity of Whiplash is, to the same degree as its score, key to its allure.
The stunning soundtrack is as precise as Miles Teller‘s drumming and as refreshing as Simmon’s hairdryer treatment. There are subtle undercurrents that permeate Whiplash, which would be spoilt if divulged here, and subsequently build towards a grand finale that is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. We watch their relationship swerve from gentle encouragement to provocation, harassment then abuse, to all-out conflict. Both leads excel in their respective parts. At points it’s akin to observing a classic boxing match, one contender ducking and weaving to avoid and counter the other’s advances; trading blows like the greats. It truly is a fascinating watch, a battle both Simmons and Teller clearly relished.
It should be noted that little is made of Andrew’s (Teller) brief girlfriend Nicole, played effortlessly by Melissa Benoist. As a character and subplot, she deserves fleshing out and consequently being put to more constructive use. Furthermore, small impracticalities prevent the main set piece from surpassing implausibility.
Despite these imperfections, and these are pedantic imperfections, Whiplash boisterously seizes your attention and belligerently retains it for its entire 107 minutes. In all honesty, the concept’s sharp simplicity tellingly indicates it is adapted from a short. Yet this should not be seen as a limitation, rather an asset. Whiplash is the distillation of a modest concept that is played out to its full natural conclusion. It should be watched as if reading a novella, a flirtation with the roles testosterone and dedication play in this musician’s quest for greatness.
Films like these often leave you in feverish confliction for days – what are the limits of encouragement? How far is too far? In the end it doesn’t really matter on which side of the fence you sit: all that matters is you were thoroughly entertained. Which you thoroughly were.