Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series where we watch some of the best films that were nominated but ultimately lost the Oscar race for best picture. In this post, Aurora Amidon discusses Damien Chazelle’s five-time nominated film Whiplash from 2014.
One of the most important elements of a movie is its rhythm. For something like Spider Man or The AvengersA fast-paced and exhilarating rhythm is essential to conveying the high-stakes nature of the superhero world. Alternatively, for a work by a meditative director like Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr, a lethargic rhythm for the story is just as important as the story itself. And in a film about music, rhythm is the component that ultimately connects the worlds of music and cinema.
From the extensive portfolio of films about musicians, Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash (2014) is the one who uses the editing most successfully to represent the music world. It tells the story of Andrew Neiman (miles teller), an ambitious young jazz drummer at one of the world’s top music conservatories. His passion and wits are put to the test when the notoriously ruthless instructor Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) is interested in him and pushes him to the edge of his comfort zone and far beyond.
Tempo and editing are critical to the essence of Whiplash. They help convey the competitiveness and unpredictability of the music business, the destructiveness of passion, and the tension in the movie’s core relationships. Granted, the nimble and turbulent handling of these topics isn’t exactly something Chazelle invented, but the way he uses it is novel and innovative. Indeed, above all else, Whiplash is the equivalent of a drum solo, like the one Andrew plays at the beginning of the film to be recruited by Terrence and the one he plays at the end of the film to prove to his audience that he actually is one of the really big ones with a capital G.
There is a duality in the world of drumming. On the average radio hit, a drummer’s job is usually to keep a rhythm. Usually a drummer is reliable no matter what else is going on in the song. Whiplash Let us know, however, that jazz drumming is a whole different universe. The nature of a jazz drum solo is completely unpredictable, and Chazelle consistently reflects that fact throughout his film.
Ultimately, like the beats of a jazz drum solo, no one is there Whiplash does what we expect of them. For example, when we meet Terrence, he’s an elusive, notoriously cold-blooded, and callous character in context. When he takes Andrew aside after inviting him to play in his elite band and tells him to just “do his best,” he is already defying our expectations – and the film has barely been on for fifteen minutes. And then, when he turns out to be exactly who he was rumored to be, our expectations are turned upside down again.
Terrence isn’t the only part of Whiplash that is unpredictable. In order to successfully recreate a drum solo, Chazelle lays down several aspects of Andrew’s life that we expect to play out in a certain way. Then he crushes those expectations. Take, for example, Andrew’s relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist). The two have a classic “meet-cute,” a trope that generally doesn’t appear in a movie unless the director wants us to actually lean on the relationship. But halfway through Whiplash, Andrew cuts things off with Nicole, who is seemingly out of the blue for perceiving a lack of motivation. We expect them to get back together in the hope that this is just one more aspect of the meet-cute. But they don’t.
Andrew’s personal life is similar to his relationship with Nicole. From the opening scene of WhiplashIt is clear that Andrew and his father (Paul Reiser) have a very close relationship. While we might assume the character will be a constant throughout the movie, Andrew’s father turns his son around surprisingly when he makes an unforeseen malicious comment about how the young man will never play at Carnegie Hall. Throughout the film, Chazelle keeps reminding us that we can’t, the best we can, predict what’s going to happen. Just when we think we understand the rhythm, like a jazz drum solo, it surprises us by completely changing course.
This pattern is also conveyed in the whiplash-inducing back and forth nature of the narrative itself. Unsurprisingly, Andrew and Terrence’s relationship is the most tumultuous in the film. In the first scene, Terrence runs into Andrew in a practice room and seems to like his game. Then he leaves the room abruptly and seems disappointed. But then he invites Andrew to practice with the band – only to replace him with another drummer. Terrence then gives Andrew a shot at the head drum seat, but then throws him completely out of the band. Terrence later invites Andrew to play with a band that is not affiliated with the school, but in the end he double-crosses him and lets him play something he doesn’t know about. But then – yes there is more – Andrew improvises an incredible drum solo and Terrence is sufficiently impressed. For now.
Andrew and Terrence’s relationship is more than a tumultuous affair. It also helps to differentiate between Andrew as the backup drummer and Andrew as the jazz drummer.
While WhiplashAndrew is making his comeback with increasing strength. The film, which begins with Andrew playing slow but enticing drum beats, ends with him playing a victorious final beat. Although he sometimes falters, Andrew controls the rhythm of the film at every turn. After all, this fluctuation is only part of the nature of a jazz drum solo.