Performance Anxiety

 

Chasing jazz hoop dreams and fleeing a paternal legacy of failure, drummer Andrew Neyman arrives for freshman year at a prestigious New York music college. His whole character might be defined by a sound that plays over a black screen to open Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash: a few taps on an open snare, the sticks held in a tensile grip, taut Mylar and coiled steel escalating to a steady, sizzling roll.

Bookended by this bracing sonic device, Whiplash speaks to the film-music traditions that shaped 29-year-old writer-director Chazelle: the MGM musicals he devoured throughout high school; the jazz-on-film docs he just as eagerly consumed, from early two-reelers of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Richard Leacock’s Sixties verité; and, perhaps most crucially, film scores so powerful they almost seem to explode out of the action on screen. But the fuse lit by this pristinely recorded snare roll resonates less with The Gene Krupa Story than with the martial drumbeat punctuating Bernard Herrmann’s title character theme for his score of Taxi Driver. A perfect note to hit for another of God’s Lonely Men, introduced in Chazelle’s noirish opening.

We get our first look at Andrew from the far end of a long, dark campus corridor: a lone figure working out on a drum kit late at night in a fluorescent-lit practice room. Played by Miles Teller, his soulful eyes and banged-up pubescent face recalling a young John Cusack, Andrew has sweat-plastered black hair and a soaked through white V-neck T-shirt that indicate a case of schpilkas that’s only soothed by playing double-time swing for an hour. Clearly, he’s either a coming-of-age-tale hero just waiting for his mentor—or a fine prospect for the nearest cult recruiter.

Exactly which of these descriptions best fits the man who materializes at his practice room’s door will remain unclear for the rest of the film. Aghast, Andrew clearly knows him by sight and reputation: Terence Fletcher. A jazz academe hybrid of John Houseman’s Harvard law prof in The Paper Chase and R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, he has the power to make careers and destroy young students’ minds. Here, he summarily mindfucks Andrew with a few self-canceling commands, cuing a demonstration of technique and then interrupting it with the sound of a slamming door after his underwhelmed exit.

The next day, when Andrew seems to have found his level understudying the core drummer of a lower-tier big band, Fletcher appears once again to alter his fate. Bursting into the classroom and commandeering the instructor’s podium, he lets his iguana-lidded gaze rove across the new talent like a Gestapo officer. He cues the bassist, a few reeds, and brass to play solo for a few seconds, dispenses a humiliating verdict on each, then turns on his heel to leave with a parting nod to the drum section: “Room B16 tomorrow morning, 6 a.m.,” Fletcher tells the new first-round draft pick for the school’s top competitive big band. As the core drummer rises with a smile, Fletcher says, “No, the other drummer,” and Andrew struggles to suppress what will prove to be a very naïve grin. Whom the gods would destroy they first admit to elite music-school jazz programs.

Once installed as alternate drummer, Andrew finds himself on the receiving end of the full spectrum of verbal, physical, and psychological abuse its leader uses to mold the next Charlie Parker, vent his personal demons, or both. J.K. Simmons gives a career-best performance as the ropey, headshaved, skintight-black-T-shirted Fletcher, gatekeeper to the snowcapped heights of professional jazz today. The slots are few, music arcane, and applicants desperate enough to endure the kind of extreme methods that make students, like Navy SEALs and fashion models, complicit in their own abuse, sending at least a few to the psych ward.

As Andrew finds himself pitted against both the core drummer and a Fletcher-enlisted challenger for the drum stool, his musical ambition turns into something that plays like the early stages of psychosis. Hours of over-practice leave sticks split and hands bloody. On the bus ride to a competition, a text from his delectable love interest (Melissa Benoist) goes ignored for a YouTube clip of Buddy Rich. The relationship with his menschy suburban dad (Paul Reiser) becomes tinged with disdain. The thrillingly played, shot, and edited performances that mark each musical competition drive the narrative toward the brink of insanity.

 

 

A few years ago, Chazelle began a genre-splicing exercise while still an undergrad in Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies department, “an old-school documentary program at its heart” as he described it to me. Shooting MGM song-and-dance numbers as monochrome Boston verité, he made the 2009 indie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a loose, stylish lark that gave neither a hint of the spring-loaded psychodrama he’d go on to assemble, nor the subculture Chazelle had experienced firsthand.

As a teenage drummer, Chazelle was selected for his New Jersey high school’s nationally competitive jazz ensemble, whose conductor imposed a level of rigor, angst, and discipline few civilians ever experience. “Suddenly, the drums went from this fun thing to an instrument I took more seriously than I ever took anything else in my life,” Chazelle says. “It became weirdly life or death. I wanted to paint a portrait of that lifestyle, and instead of a gangster or a war movie, have it be in this world where death isn’t actually looming but feels like it is.” Hewing to the filmed music performance as a way of “mapping documentary reality onto an artificial narrative,” Chazelle renders a credibly high-tension arts-school ambience for the fictitious Schaffer Conservatory of Music.

Mostly black, exclusively male, and played by young top-tier musicians, the Studio Band brings a spit-valve-clearing, floor-tom-tuning authenticity that grounds the film in jazz’s social and physical reality. Which is helpful when Fletcher’s first entrance makes them actually snap to standing attention like recruits at Parris Island. We follow Andrew’s nervous scan over the sheet music for the Hank Levy number that gives the film its title: a spider’s nest of dotted-sixteenth notes and abrupt shifts in meter almost as unnerving as the torrent of abuse Fletcher hurls at those “pussies” and “faggots” who fail to play them less than perfectly. “Baker, that is not your boyfriend’s dick—do not come early!” he yells at a horn player.

Buttonholing Andrew at rehearsal break, Fletcher shares the Ur-myth of this film: how Charlie Parker’s lackluster showing at a jam session made drummer Philly Joe Jones hurl a cymbal at him, thus motivating the practice sessions that produced jazz’s Ultimate Killing Machine. After gathering intel on the subject’s soft spots—an AWOL mom, a failed-novelist dad who’s now a high-school teacher—Fletcher gives Andrew some parting advice: “The key is to relax,” he says with a go-get-’em-tiger smile. “Have fun.” Because I’d seen the 2013 short film that won the feature its funding, this line was among many that made me laugh out loud.

In the corresponding scene that plays out almost identically in the short (only with Johnny Simmons playing Andrew), Fletcher lets Andrew take the core drummer’s seat and try his hand at a 7/8 section of “Whiplash.” Fletcher briskly claps the band in, lets it play for two bars, shakes his head, and signals “cut.” “Not quite my tempo,” he tells Andrew, gently. He claps them in again, they play two bars, and again Fletcher gestures a two-handed garrote. “You’re rushing,” he tells Andrew, still gently. After two more false starts— one dragging, one rushing—Fletcher has the band play on as he backs out of the frame, letting Andrew enjoy eight bars of apparent success before a hurled chair comes sailing at his head.

Here, Chazelle’s transposition of Full Metal Jacket to music pedagogy verges on brilliance. When Vincent D’Onofrio’s Private Pyle turns his head in the wrong direction after a command, R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant Hartman uses corporal punishment to teach him left from right: slapping one cheek, then the other, and demanding that Pyle tell him which one’s which. In Whiplash, the slaps come as Andrew counts off the tempo of the section’s first measure—each blow landing either a millisecond before or behind the actual downbeat. “So you do know the difference!” Fletcher yells in mock delight when Andrew, eyes pooling, correctly identifies the problem as rushing. The perverse logic of interrogation, humiliation, discipline,and education play sublimely as extreme black comedy, and the soundtrack confirms Andrew’s fault, with slaps that, as shown, audibly land a hair early.

Though set in Manhattan, Schaffer’s real-life counterpart isn’t Juilliard but Boston’s Berklee and New England Conservatory, schools where students actually are trained with less cinematic, more interiorized versions of Fletcher’s enhanced focusing techniques. Having attended two such institutions in my teens and early twenties, I connected to the emotional experiences even if a few details struck some notes that “American Idol” host Randy Jackson would call “pitchy.”When Fletcher stages a bloody, three-drummer cage fight, Chazelle reworks drill sergeant Hartman’s demand that a grunt “start shitting me Tiffany cufflinks” into “start shitting me perfect 400s.” That is, perfectly executed swing time at a tempo of 400 bpms—which is neither sane nor possible.“There were certain elements of the movie that I wanted to let be a kind of fever dream,” says Chazelle, whose deployment of MGM musical logic may be savvy enough to sell some real doozies, such as Andrew limping to a competition from a car accident that’s left him bloody and suffering from a concussion, but determined to play through whatever neurological damage would likely throw off his double-time swing feel by just a hair.

Once it hits its stride, Whiplash gets so many things so right it starts to feel like the perfect-ten Ellington rendition its elite big bands play in the big competition. The tunes and charts may both be borrowed, but the execution still kicks ass. In nearly every cut and tempo shift, Chazelle’s film moves with acute rhythmic sensitivity, and the performances of late-Sixties/early- Seventies jazz-funk showstoppers by Don Ellis that are part of the film’s musical milieu inspire Justin Hurwitz to compose a score using the kind of simmering grooves and dense upper-horn harmonies that Lalo Schifrin created to build suspense in Bullitt and Dirty Harry. Chazelle worked closely with editor Tom Cross, assembling references from the cutting in films by Scorsese, Friedkin, and Peckinpah that had “nothing to do with music but are entirely about rhythm and tempo, and stops and starts and catharsis.”

With a purely musical moment in mind for his ending, Chazelle worked out the conflicts and plot points the film needed to find its logical climax here, in a moment that may satisfy as drama even more than it does as music spectacle. The finest moments in Whiplash don’t derive from Shine, Full Metal Jacket, Black Swan, or Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker drama Bird, but from Breaking Away. In Peter Yates’s 1979 coming-of-age classic, a teen bicycle-racing fanatic hopes that access to the sport’s top echelon will let him rise from the blue-collar world that made him—a world where love is freely given and thus worthless.

As a character, Fletcher is a Rorschach test for feelings about fathers and teachers, and any high-stakes training where tough love and sadism are often indistinguishable. Whether because of Simmons’s complex portrayal or my own experience with similar teachers, it’s impossible for me to see Fletcher as solely a villain, especially after events lead Andrew toward a climactic ending/showdown that rewrites that old musician joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer isn’t: “Practice, practice, practice.” It’s deny your father, refuse your name, and scare the shit out of your music-school prof.