[This review was written upon the release of the film in question in 2014.]
Writer/Director – Damien Chazelle
Running time 1 hr. 47 min
‘I’m glad this movie has been made, because people don’t realize,’ he says to me, walking through night-time Bethnal Green, ‘People don’t realize just how much work goes into being a musician.’ My friend is a former youth chorister and, like me, has filled and thrilled his life with music from a young age. Like me, he also could never have devoted his every ounce of sweat to becoming a truly great musician. Watching Whiplash exhilarates that impulse, pulsating through the fiery rhythms of jazz and a young man’s desire for greatness. It also made me glad I chose life over music.
This is not a cute, uplifting tale of a young soul fulfilling his talent and potential to the absolute maximum. It is a deeply troubling, tense, and darkly thrilling tale of a young soul fulfilling his talent and potential to the absolute maximum – thanks to, but also in spite of, the extreme pressure of an older mentor figure.
The subject of ambition has often been portrayed. The extent to which innocent and positive ambition can grind down a young and vulnerable mind at the very moment it propels it forwards I have never seen depicted, in literature or on the screen, in its particular nuances. It makes you realize that although mainstream movies overwhelmingly star the young over the old, they are awake to the superficial and not the deeper, more pressing concerns of the young mind. Both staggeringly strong and staggeringly fragile, the body and mind of a young person is an agitated container for ambition, a thing that defies containment.
Executed with subtlety, precision and intense but understated sensitivity to colours, sounds, and the slightest physical movement, the filmic craft of Whiplash is an aesthetic joy to experience. It allows the film to avoid the common pitfall of clunky, unrealistic dialogue that loudly explains characterisation and points of conflict to the audience; instead, movements, glimpses, and throw-away interactions build up a clear picture of the minor points of psychological tension that permeate the major drive of the plot. The cinematography is as tightly controlled as it is visceral, as if it too were an instrument being coaxed by a conductor’s hand to make an exact and powerful sound. We are aware of the protagonist’s every sensation, and it is gripping all the way through.
Whiplash drives forward on a simple idea, honing in and in as its hero hones his talent, and as I in my seat tense and tense in open-wide horror and joy. It serves as the most powerful kind of warning, both in regards to the unseen social issues it addresses and the thematic question it leaves you with at its close. It is more truly troubling than most films, because it really does end on a question, rather than a sculpted answer hidden in a question. What I take away from it, not everyone will take, and what you take really matters, even after you have left the cinema and stroll with your friends through the cold of a big city.
Go see it. It’s for everyone. And the music is phenomenal.