“I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.” That’s how jazz drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) sums up art and, really, life in general over an awkward dinner conversation in Whiplash. Andrew’s idolization of Charlie Parker is a touch extreme (and more than a touch apocryphal) but it’s his unfaltering adoration, even in the face of destitution and mortality, that defines the artistic dedication in Damien Chazelle’s second feature. The result of pitting Andrew’s entitled whippersnapper against the fiery temper of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the Shaffer Conservatory’s firebrand jazz director, Whiplash‘s prime concern is in the sacrifices of art marking and the crippling fear of complacency. It’s a complementary mirror to the same reverence for art that consumes another film from this year, Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s bug nuts dramedy starring a wigged out Michael Keaton and his character Riggan Thomson’s own struggles with irrelevancy. And in service of both Whiplash and Birdman‘s meta-fixations on the creative process is a reliance on rhythm in their scores to illustrate the abuses suffered in their high-minded dramas.
Whiplash may revolve around a drummer, but it’s Birdman’s use of percussion that’s more ubiquitous. Drummer and composer Antonio Sanchez lays back easy grooves as Keaton’s Riggan Thomson walks down New York City streets or strolls down theater hallways before dress rehearsal (“Strut Pt. 2”). Cues like “Doors and Distance” are easy to tap your foot to because Sanchez has created a jazz- and rock-based string of practice tracks. Much of the score is easy listening (which might explain why “For Your Consideration” copies didn’t bother to include track names) and like the rest of Birdman‘s stylistic gimmicks, the rhythms play directly to Riggan’s internal struggles. The former A-lister grapples with depression, relevance, and even a fictional “Birdman” voice inside his own head, so it’s little wonder the inevitable strikes of drumsticks are both a ticking clock hand and another chip away at his patience. “Internal War” uses lower-pitched percussion and builds to cymbal crashes, with each combination feeling like the punchline to a series of jokes, at once punctuating Riggan’s frustrations and mocking them. Whether it’s a high-hat, cymbal crashes or tambourine patter, Sanchez and Iñárritu have turned reliable rhythms into an inescapable nuisance.
Whiplash heightens such nuisances to overwhelming burdens. Name-dropping legendary greats like Buddy Rich and “Philly” Joe Jones sets decades of innovation and talent on Andrew’s shoulders, and composer Justin Hurwitz’s source music combines standards like “Caravan” and Hurwitz’s own compositions. “Overture” is a fine imitation of frenzied big band numbers so insistently upbeat its drum sections sound like a blissful stupor. The underlying double-time swing, a repertory skill Andrew frequently struggles with in rehearsals, feels divorced from the winking coolness of saxophone flurries. No less complex than the rhythm section’s sheet music, Hurwitz’s melodies hold a sprightly sentiment that when removed from Andrew’s drum kit, reveal an overwhelming rhythm buried under layers of melody and pressure.
As much as Whiplash and Birdman‘s rhythms induce pressures on their respective artists, they also reflect the results of those pressures. Sanchez’s score both begins and concludes with clusters of drum rolls (“Get Ready,” “Fire Tail”) as each cue plays under rare moments when Iñárritu’s camera bothers to shy away from Riggan. Both “Get Ready” and “Fire Tail” underscore abstract sequences of a comet streaking across the night sky, images stylistically divorced from the hustle and bustle of New York City. And yet, so much of Birdman takes place inside Riggan’s head. Like its unwavering “giant long take” that seems to hover around Riggan, drums in Sanchez’s score intermingle with a solo drummer playing a beat by his lonesome or a full-on drum corps marching in the middle of Times Square. Even when Riggan isn’t harnessing his “telekinetic” powers to trash his dressing room, Birdman‘s world bends itself to his will, placing the comet-streaked bookends inside his headspace if only by association. Rolls on the tom-toms actually sound like distorted wing flaps punctuated by cymbal crashes. This rising action adheres to eponymous Birdman’s legacy as a comic book hero, and when played against celestial visions, the end result is a suggestion of inner peace. After hours of Riggan’s floating meditation sessions and artistic squabbles, the troubled actor has reached a nirvana of sorts.
Like Birdman, Whiplash begins and ends with the same cue, “Snare Liftoff.” “Snare Liftoff” gradually accelerates from a choppy, isolated rhythm to a furious roll, drawing from a later scene where Fletcher asks Andrew to perform his rudiment exercises. If Birdman‘s steady grooves are a ticking clock, Whiplash is the boiling pot bubbling over in short order. Tempers flare and egos are bruised when Andrew and Fletcher butt heads over that pesky double-time swing, a tension Whiplash mines for violence. “Drum and Drone” sounds like it’s gearing up for war with a martial snare and “Accident” sideswipes its beat with a droning siren, for it’s not enough that Andrew doesn’t get along with his instructor; the competitive environment has spilled out of the practice studio and into the music hall.
Musicians have railed against Whiplash for painting a vicious, violent portrait of success, but what those musicians “get wrong” is that Chazelle and Hurwitz haven’t created an industry exposé or an endorsement of abusive teaching practices. Whiplash is battle of wits and pride, a fight that leaves bumps and bruises. There’s a physical sacrifice to artistry that, like Birdman‘s extreme conclusion, might spill a little blood. Or a lot.