Is it worth driving yourself mad -- to the point of bleeding hands and losing your girlfriend -- to achieve greatness? This is the premise of Damien Chazelle's extraordinary new film, Whiplash, which won the grand prize at Deauville this past week, and also took home the audience award.
The story: A 19-year-old music student, Andrew, wants desperately to succeed as a jazz drummer, and so works himself to exhaustion to please his sadistic music teacher, a near-caricature of a tyrant named Fletcher who humiliates his students, with a constant stream of militant insults, to prod them to perfection. Andrew, who begins the movie seeming like a normal somewhat alienated young man, with a fledging relationship with a girl he meets at a movie theater and an above-average talent, gradually turns into a single-focused obsessive striver who, to keep up the "tempo" under Fletcher's crazed direction, will play hour after hour after hour, the sweat and blood literally dripping on his drums until he "gets it right." As for the boy's personal life, this soon becomes inconsequential. "I have no time for relationships," the determined Andrew tells his girlfriend, his eyes blinking with the eerie light of his ambition to be the next Buddy Rich.
At issue in this "bootcamp" environment of would-be musicians is also the need to prove oneself to be a man. Ninety percent of Fletcher's insults are of the homophobic variety: accusing his terrified students (mostly male) of being faggots and wimps.The key example of failed manhood in this film: Andrew's own father, a failed novelist, who we discover is "just a high school teacher." "Your father did not have what it takes!"sneers Fletcher, in a one-on-one with his anxious student.
The question is, does Andrew? One rehearsal scene after another -- replete with fear, anguish and trauma -- keeps us in suspense to find out, at a fast-paced tempo.
If this film has a weakness, it lies in the fact that the set-up of the film in the first half-hour initially promises a less original movie experience: a generic rise-to-fame American success story, en par with Rocky or Fame. In the opening scenes, while Fletcher seems over-the-top mad, the teacher-student relationship--and the boy's burgeoning love with the movie theater girl---seem fairly standard movie fare. No hint is given, as in the set-up, for example, of the DeNiro role in Taxi Driver, that our lead character Andrew may have a fatal "flaw"--or is it strength?--that will push him over the (bearing) edge of his drum.
The second half of the movie, however, amply makes up for the more standard beginning, as director Damien Chazelle takes brilliant risks to bring his story to the height of fury, almost beyond belief, but so much so, that we believe it. Two rhythmically parallel scenes -- one involving a frenetic car ride (and spectacular crash) and the other, a surprise finale performance -- bring this film to a crescendo that is nothing short of sublime.
It's a crescendo that remains ambiguous. Whiplash does not decide one way or the other on its initial question: i.e. whether ambition is worth self-torture. There is no black-or-white answer, rather a razor-edge split vote. Ibid for the characters. The director does not make Andrew always such a nice character (nor so bad either). The boy gloats when he gets a lead drumming role at the expense of a tortured peer who is unfairly excised. He snubs his girlfriend with more coldness than returning an unwanted order of food at a restaurant. It is also never clear whether he really does have so much talent or not; all we have is his tremendous effort.
We are never quite sure whether to pity Andrew for being stunted, brainwashed by American success values -- or to admire him, as a tortured artist who must sacrifice for his work.
What makes Whiplash stand out is something more ineffable, however. Its power lies in the urgency in the telling, a tinge of the same visceral urgency we see in Scorsese's early films. One has the feeling that Damien Chazelle had at all stakes to make this film -- just as desperately as his character needs to drum -- that he had some personal suffering to vent, a raw experience to share, that he needed to make his audience feel as well.
The audience applauded thunderously.
I met with Damien to discuss.
"When creating the portrait of the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, I thought of my own experiences at Harvard as an undergraduate. One thinks of school as something very sublime and joyful--" Damien laughed ironically. "But it's not."
He also was inspired in his film by his own experiences as a drummer, in a high school jazz band. "I remember fear and anguish as a drummer. I too had a sadistic professor."
Earlier in the press conference, the young director had explained that he -- half French, half American -- found American culture to have a "bipolar" approach to education. "It is lax on early education, the child is coddled, but when one is an adult, it is extremely punitive. If one does not succeed, one is a loser. You're done. The driving idea in America is excellence at any cost."
Was the emphasis on masculine values in the film deliberate?
"Yes it was deliberate," the director said at once.
"The world of jazz is historically masculine and jazz is segregated according to sex. Women sing or play piano, and it is rare that they play instruments. Fletcher comes from this tradition of Buddy Rich. He tries to be very macho. Jazz musicians are not very confident, nor always appreciated by the masses. One is always under the masters. Sure the hands are bleeding, but we musicians are treated like a geeky jazz band. Jazz is seen as refined, feminine. Fletcher knows how to manipulate these fears. I wanted to show the cruelty of the world of jazz. Mistreatment is very important in jazz."
I asked the director a question of personal concern: what had he learned from his film studies in Harvard? As a professor, I am curious what it is that an aspiring director actually learns in the university that eventually leads to a fine competition film.
"The Harvard program I was in emphasized documentaries, the work of Wiseman, Rouch, etc. I made 16 mm documentaries. This is how I learned to film musicians, how to make portraits of worlds, subcultures. But my first love, since high school, was the thriller. I loved Hitchcock. Whiplash is a mélange between anthropology, ethnography and observation, but it is also thriller -- in the tradition of Scorsese and Hitchcock. I wanted it to be intense, visceral. I wanted a film that Fletcher or Andrew could have created, with an exacting tempo, metronymic and fast."
But what the director kept coming back to, both in our conversation and the press conference, is the beating issue of the film: talent and drive.
"I wanted to show both sides. The ecstasy of artistic creation -- what most people imagine it to be about -- versus the real anguish and fear. Art is not easy, and if it is, it is bad. The myth of the born genius is harmful. What is this innate talent? If one really looks at Mozart, he had a bizarre childhood with his father. He spent more time with music as a child than other people do at age 20. Art is not magic. Genius is not magic. The only thing that is innate in artists is that all geniuses work hard."
He smiled as I noted that his lead character, in choosing to "work hard", was not always so likeable, especially when he drops his girlfriend. Could the ethical dilemma of sacrificing humanity for one's art be a chief concern for the director? Damien's earlier film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, also had as a central issue a jazz musician who loses his girlfriend.
The director concurred:
"It's a constant struggle to find the balance between one's art and one's relationships. Is the suffering worth it? I would like to be a humanist and at the same time as an artist, but at times it is contradictory. One can be a musician without anyone in one's life. Music can be a completely solitary art. Even in an orchestra, one can still be very alone. Yes, my earlier film was about this difficulty, to find this balance between art and love."
So will his next film, he noted, which will be a musical on this theme, in the style of Jacques Demy and Stanley Donan.
A final question begs to be asked: how much of Damien's stories about musicians is also a comment on his own drive to be a film director -- on his own white-whale search for the thrill of artistic bliss? Earlier, the director had confided that he had never experienced "the kind of ecstasy" his lead experiences when he was drumming: "I could devote my life to drumming and have that proficiency, but I never had the talent to be Buddy Rich." This is why he dropped the drumming.
But then he picked up the camera.
Is there any similarity between making music and films?
"In making a film, 94 percent is fear and anguish," the director explained. "We only had 19 days of shooting. We were close to failure every single day. It was a sensation of fear. I don't like making a film feeling fear." He smiled. "But then the l percent happens."
He revealed the answer to the question of his film:
"The shot is worth it."