Having premiered at Sundance, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the Dramatic Audience Award, Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash has since hit all the major festivals and screens at one more, New York, before opening in theaters on October 10.
“Pitched somewhere between a kunstlerroman and an Archers melodrama about the psychic toll wrought by a life of artistic commitment, Whiplash is about as off-kilter as Sundance darlings get,” writes Angelo Muredda in Cinema Scope. “An extended riff on sophomore helmer Damien Chazelle’s earlier short, the film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, an aspiring jazz drummer lured to one of the finer music academies in the country by the promise of working under the famed maestro Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Trouble is, Fletcher’s a monster, hurling abuse and cymbals at his pupils (in honor of Charlie Parker’s humble beginnings as Jo Jones’s whipping boy), the better to push them to the brink of body, mind, and talent…. Chazelle has a winning conceit in the bond between the self-annihilating hero and his psychopathic mentor.”
For Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed, “what makes Whiplash so dynamic and unnervingly unpredictable is that it never lets you decide if their dysfunctional relationship is destructive or perfect, if they’re two people chasing each other to a terrible end or to excellence.”
“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.” Chris Cabin at Slant: “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.”
“Teller is called upon again and again to present Andrew bumping against the absolute limits of his artistic and athletic capabilities, and he does it very well,” writes NPR’s Linda Holmes. “Simmons, meanwhile, refuses to imbue Fletcher with secret winking warmth, and at those moments where the man does appear to have any vulnerabilities at all, there is an unreal sheen to them that continues to raise and raise again the question of whether this relationship is heading toward a reconciliation, a moment of understanding, a physical fight or a disillusioned walking away.”
At Gay City News, Steve Erickson finds that Whiplash “summons its inspiration for a dynamite finish, but it suffers from an overbearing sense of machismo that crosses over from character to film…. Chazelle’s sensibility draws on the profane, slur-laden dialogue of David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino.”
Update, 9/29: Listening (31’52”). The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s posted audio from a post-screening Q&A with Simmons and Chazelle.
Update, 9/30: “It’s a breathtakingly paced, staggeringly visceral movie, much of it utterly brutal to endure,” writes Jason Bailey at Flavorwire.
Update, 10/1: “Whiplash is most interesting when it explores the pitfalls of an artistic career. For any aspiring writer, painter, or musician, there will be disconcerting scenes.” At the Film Stage, Zade Constantine gives Whiplash an A-.
Update, 10/2: At Reverse Shot, Farihah Zaman suggests that the story “is a little myopic in a way; it is a series of volleys taking place over little more than a year, and without any significant character development (unless ‘going nuts’ counts). But without that tight focus, without forcing the viewer so constantly into Andrew and Fletcher’s unpredictable, jittery arena, Chazelle would not have been able to effect such an acute, overwhelming sense of anxiety.”
Update, 10/6: “I wasn’t crazy about Whiplash,” writes Doug Dibbern at the Notebook, “precisely because it portrayed its dichotomy between innocence and evil much too obviously.” At one point Andrew (Teller) asks Fletcher, “‘Isn’t there a line that you shouldn’t cross?’ The problem with the screenplay, then, is that by posing its own question so openly it forces itself to provide an answer in the end. But either possible answer to this question is banal. That being said, one of these possible answers—that this sort of abusive pedagogical technique is necessary or useful to push us to better ourselves—is clearly the wrong one. And yet, this is the very answer that the movie provides.”
Updates, 10/8: “Whiplash gets less predictable as it goes along,” writes Nathan Rabin at the Dissolve, “and writer-director Damien Chazelle—a prodigy in his own right, who triumphed with Whiplash at this year’s Sundance before turning 30—shows an admirable willingness to push Andrew’s obsessiveness into the realm of something self-defeating and abusive. The film’s aversion toward clichés and hitting expected beats lends it a rare, welcome edge of danger.”
Nicolas Rapold at the L: “Often nearly toppling into the ridiculous, Whiplash does deliver beyond the standard beatdown-and-uplift arc with its persuasive cage-match of egos (with the running joke, and reminder, being that the freedoms of jazz require exacting and exhausting dedication).”
“To care so much about a kind of music that’s nearly impossible to conquer, and that is almost certain to guarantee a lifetime of being broke and miserable, is a specific kind of devotion,” writes Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice. “The best thing about Damien Chazelle’s exuberant but wayward Whiplash is that it captures that ardent near-mania so beautifully. Loving any music this much will surely end in heartbreak—and still, fools rush in.”
“Genius is actually beyond teaching or example,” grumbles David Thomson in the New Republic. “This is a student film in rampant overdrive and it will attract attention and offers. So I just hope Mr. Chazelle doesn’t believe too much in his film’s dumb message.”
At the Talkhouse Film, director Daniel Schechter lets an inner monologue slip out into the public eye, albeit in italics.
Updates, 10/9: Chazelle “and the director of photography, Sharone Meir, give Whiplash the brooding, spooky look of a horror movie, turning the New York streets and the school hallways into a realm of deep, expressive shadows,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “There is an atmosphere of whispery menace, and Mr. Simmons prowls the screen with a vampire’s stealth and a killer’s wry half-smile…. For all its dexterity and assurance, the movie has its share of false notes and rhythmic stumbles. The contrast between Fletcher and Andrew’s father, who long ago gave up his dreams of literary glory to become a teacher, is drawn a little too emphatically, as if nice guy and artist were completely antithetical. A few plot twists test the limits of credibility…. Still, the battle of master and disciple is exciting and terrifying to witness, and, at its best, the film can feel as wild and spontaneous, as risky and precise, as a live jam session.”
“Grand Piano, the stage-fright thriller the filmmaker wrote before Whiplash, looks now like a dry run to this feature-length panic attack,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “Chazelle fetishizes process, getting his camera in close on shiny instruments and the non-professional actors playing them. (Most of the students in Fletcher’s class are actual musicians, and their stress looks awfully authentic.) In an early scene, Andrew goes to the local arthouse movie theater with his father (Paul Reiser, whose warmth and understanding is a nice counterbalance to Simmons’s hair-trigger volatility). The film they watch: Jules Dassin’s classic heist thriller Rififi. It’s an apt choice, as Chazelle shares Dassin’s procedural fascination with men at work, those who demonstrate their finesse and expertise under duress.”
“And Miles Teller, oh, Miles Teller,” marvels Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “A revelation as an alcoholic high school slacker in last year’s The Spectacular Now, Teller cements his reputation here, with an off-kilter energy and restless intelligence that’s reminiscent of John Cusack (whom he physically resembles, and whose son or younger self he should play in a movie forthwith). Andrew may not always be able to keep up with his exacting guru’s musical tempo, but Teller’s quiet, inward performance keeps up with Simmons’s bold and showy one beat for beat.” Kyle Buchanan talks with Teller for Vulture.
Whiplash “is a sleek machine that works you over and bats you around until the climax incites the audience into the kind of frenzy I haven’t seen in an auditorium since Rocky beat Drago,” writes Sean Burns. “It’s viscerally thrilling, and distressingly hollow.”
Updates, 10/10: “As a go-for-it music movie, Whiplash is just about peerless,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “The fear is contagious, but so is the jazz vibe… The style is keyed to the tempo—it’s as if Chazelle were extending the music into space.”
Sam Fragoso talks with Chazelle for Filmmaker.
Updates, 10/11: For the Playlist, Charlie Schmidlin talks with Chazelle about Whiplash and about his next project, La La Land, “a contemporary musical in the vein of ‘40s and ‘50s MGM musicals, following a returning Teller and Emma Watson as Los Angeles dreamers hoping for a big break—he as a musician, she as an actress.”
At Slate, Forrest Wickman warns of spoilers, but here’s his title: “What Whiplash Gets Wrong About Genius, Work, and the Charlie Parker Myth.”
Updates, 10/13: “Whether Whiplash tells us much about music, despite a fine rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan,’ I’m not sure,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “It’s more about power than it is about jazz, and the fetishistic closeups—of blood and flying sweat, as well as of tears—suggest a blend of boot camp, football coaching, and pornography. At the climax, a grimacing Andrew plays an unstoppable solo, which sends you out on a high but also leaves you with a long echo of loneliness, and you wonder if, in the hunt for excellence, he will ever be happy again.”
Update, 10/14: “The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as [Charlie] Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images.”
Updates, 10/16: “Chazelle is pilfering from Scorsese, but meaningfully, star-makingly,” argues Wesley Morris at Grantland. “He’s one of a tiny few American directors to come out from under all of that influence and to speak in a new, original language. Whiplash adopts a psychotic sense of doom, similar to what coursed through Taxi Driver, a film about narcissism, unraveling sanity, and also a sort of societal collapse. But it also has the zoom and instability of Scorsese’s too-infrequently praised work from the mid-1980s, like The King of Comedy. Chazelle adds a layer of personal need and neediness.”
Updates, 10/17: “Blunt-force trauma is Chazelle’s specialty, and during the film’s ludicrous final moments, he goes all in,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. for the San Diego CityBeat. “Literalizing the epic standoff between teacher and student by way of a bloody drum solo, Whiplash takes pleasure in watching one bully compete against another for our attention. Edited to death by a series of jarring cuts, the sequence affirms its characters’ arrogance and need to relish in their own musical ability, a situation that successfully wipes away any other perspective. In the end, this trite recital is meant to pummel the audience into a false sense of self-congratulation. Considering how many smart critics and festival audiences have fallen for this con of a movie, it’s seemingly worked wonders in doing so.”
“Whiplash is one of the year’s great films and if William Friedkin thinks so, then it must be true,” Ryan Lattanzio, and Logan Kroeber adds his approval as well at EatDrinkFilms.
Update, 11/2: The Chicago Reader‘s J.R. Jones suggests that “people who love the music may find Whiplash faintly offensive…. We’ve all heard about the legendary after-hours ‘cutting contests’ in which the great players soloed back and forth, trying to smoke each other. But if you’ve ever played in any kind of improvisational group, you know that the key to making it work is listening to your fellow players, not trying to vanquish them. The jazz musicians I know may be incredibly exacting like Fletcher, but the good ones also understand that generosity and camaraderie are integral to a great ensemble, and that the easiest way to ruin a number is to let it turn into an ego competition, with every player disinterestedly marking time until the spotlight comes to him. What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity.”
Update, 11/7: “After his script for last year’s criminally underseen Grand Piano, writer-director Chazelle shows he has unlimited promise in the world of thrillers aimed at adults,” writes Isaac Weeks for the Nashville Scene. “Loaded with more tension and intensity than a slasher movie, Whiplash delivers a primer for producing a great film: create meaty roles, let underutilized talents sink their teeth into them—then stay out of their way.
Update, 11/16: Eat Drink Films has a transcript of the Q&A with Chazelle that Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich conducted during the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Update, 12/9: Listening (51’41). Amy Taubin spoke with Chazelle during the NYFF.
Update, 12/27: Emma Myers talks with Simmons for Film Comment.
Update, 1/10: Henry Barnes interviews Simmons for the Guardian.