The last and probably only Hollywood film ever made about a jazz drummer was The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Jazz critics called the film “ludicrous” and “inaccurate.” Still, the film managed to inspire thousands of young musicians including Peter Criss (Catman) of KISS.
It’s taken the silver screen 55 years to recover from all that noise. Whiplash (2014) director/writer Damien Chazelle’s story about the musical journey of a young jazz drummer’s experience at a demanding music conservancy is extraordinary in many ways. It is apparent that Chazelle, also a percussionist, watched and learned from Krupa. He also most likely watched the many DVDs on “the world’s greatest drummer,” Buddy Rich, who receives honorable mention in this film more than a few times.
The storyline is refreshingly straightforward. A gifted young drummer, played by Miles Teller, enrolls in a the country’s most prestigious music school, the fictional Schaffer Academy in Manhattan (Schaffer is based on the ultra-competitive jazz school at North Texas State University), where his dreams of awesomeness are mentored by a fierce and ruthless instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, who’s onscreen monster-of-insults performance is terrifyingly oscar-worthy. He serves up verbal, physical and emotional abuse, public humiliation, and rants and raves like a crazed Full Metal Jacket (1987) sergeant.
Expecting “110 percent musical perfection” was often cited as Buddy Rich’s goal. To say that J.K. Simmons’ whack-job character channels Buddy Rich is an understatement worthy of further examination. High expectations? Yeah, he had a few.
Whiplash is no touchy-feely film and in many ways may seem like a horrifying experience. In actuality, it’s a story of passion between two men in love with the same thing. They share a devotion to the jazz tradition and the missions of perfection and artistic excellence.
The minor subplots of family feud and a brief romance (no nudity) remain subplots and don’t distract from the main story. The main characters remain true to themselves throughout the film and there is no male redemption involved. Thank you, Chazelle.
Whiplash is not a musical. In fact, the only song played in its entirety is Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” during the film’s crescendo.