He is a big band director who out Buddy Riches Buddy Rich. While Rich’s band members always contended the famous drummer’s profane bark was worse than his bite, Fletcher is a dread terror with a baton. One freshman drummer learns this the hard way in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which screens as part of Shorts program 3 at the 51st New York Film Festival.
It is Andrew Neiman’s first day with the jazz orchestra of an elite conservatory. He will do newby stuff like tuning the kit and turning pages, but he will also get a turn with the sticks. It will be a real trial by fire. Before he even gets his shot, Neiman will witness one band-member getting the public ax. The choice of tune will not do him any favors either. It will be Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” (which Don Ellis recorded on his Soaring album). An arranger and composer for the Ellis and Stan Kenton big bands, Levy often experimented with odd time signatures, while delivering the big sounds those leaders were known for. Good luck, kid.
Even though the portrait of Rich hanging above him would seem to signify good luck, Neiman is in for it. However, Whiplash has already had considerable good fortune. An expanded feature film version is proceeding on track after it won the short film jury award at this year’s Sundance. While high profile executive producers like Jason Reitman and Jason “Insidious” Blum did not hurt, its real trump card is the jaw-dropping work of J.K. Simmons.
Recognizable from jillions of supporting parts (including J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman franchise), Simmons calls and raises both Buddy Rich and former Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermy. As Fletcher, he is certainly intimidating, but also disturbingly manipulative. Yet, viewers cannot write him off completely, because there is very clearly a passion for the music burning within him. Regardless of what you make of the character, it is a tour de force performance from Simmons.
The late Hank Levy also deserves credit for helping Whiplash the movie work. Even (or especially) to a non-musician, his composition sounds hard to play and the chart looks impossible. Yet, the Hank Levy Legacy Band still swings it hard for the film’s soundtrack.
Musician turned filmmaker Chazelle is clearly intimately acquainted with this world. His stylish feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench also employed jazz, while shrewdly examining the private lives of musicians. He also co-wrote the screenplay for The Last Exorcism Part II, so there’s range for you.