One of the reasons why jazz is often considered a uniquely American art form is the way that it straddles the line between individual glory and collective responsibility. A jazz band is only as good as the sum of its parts, each member playing a role and keeping the right tempo.
And yet jazz builds in space for individuals to improvise and claim the solo spotlight. It’s an art form that values freedom and wildness, but within bounds; pitch, meter, tempo and technique still matter. It’s the tension between order and chaos. Jazz is very much about bringing order out of chaos, as all art is; yet it’s also about riffing on chaos. Born as it was in the transition years between Victorian-era orderliness and the fragmenting deconstruction of modernism, jazz finds beauty in the blurry space between order/meter and disorderly life.
Whiplash, written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, is a film about jazz that reflects these tensions well. It follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a gifted jazz drummer aspiring to greatness while studying under an intense teacher named Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at a fictional, Juilliard-esque music school in New York City. Fletcher is kind of like the Professor Snape of college jazz band teachers. He hurls insults (and sometimes chairs) at his students and often makes them cry. He shames, manipulates, and emotionally abuses his pupils, all with the vocabulary of a sailor skilled in stringing together profanities in creative ways.
Like Snape, Fletcher directs extra measures of wrath on the pupil with the most promise. Andrew is his Harry Potter. And while they are enemies for much of the film, they also need each other. Fletcher’s relentless whip-cracking ...1
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